Mark Knopfler works with a loose theme here, that of living by your wits on the high seas, but the broader messages found on Privateering are sure to resonate with anyone who’s faced down life’s mighty struggles.
It’s been three years since the former Dire Straits frontman issued Get Lucky, and he clearly has been busy: The forthcoming Privateering, due September 3, 2012, from Mercury Records, includes 20 new original songs — to go with eight additional cuts on an expanded super deluxe edition.
I’m struck, too, not just by the depth of music but also by the breadth of sounds on this, Knopfler’s seventh solo album. He has, despite the easy comparisons, actually spent longer away than he did with Dire Straits, and has already recorded more projects alone than he did with them. (That’s to say nothing of Knopfler’s work in film, where he has composed almost a dozen soundtracks.)
So, while moments like “Red Bud Tree” and “Go Love” have the romantic stoicism of Knopfler’s quietest moments on Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, there is, as you dig deeper, much more to them. Whereas, on that earlier album, Knopfler whispered indictments of war’s machinery, here he turns more bravely inward — making personal pleas for shelter from heartache’s straight-lined winds. Too, and this is in keeping with a personality so determined to get away from fame’s white-hot light, they are very nearly unadorned: Often, all you’ll hear are Knopfler’s weathered voice, his insistent strum, the murmuring of a lap steel, and the echoes of dreams long gone.
Elsewhere, moments like the floorboard-rattling title track and the darkly ruminative “Dream of the Drowned Submariner” move deeper into the album’s occasional seafaring narrative. But they, too, contain universal ideas about perseverance, about leaning into adversity. Then there are bluesy, harp-honking declamations like “Hot or What.” Ostensibly, it’s about a gambler on a run of good luck but, to my ears, this is the sound of someone who has worked too hard, and probably for too little, finally letting off steam at week’s end. Yes, the clouds break occasionally, there and on “Today Is OK,” for those seemingly destined to lose and lose again.
Only rarely, of course, does any of it make any real sense, though. Just ask the guy in “Seattle,” nailed to a barstool late into the night, looking for answers that even he knows can’t be found in those flickering neon signs and smudged-brass taps. But, when Monday rolls around again, you know he’ll be right back at his post — because, perhaps only instinctively, he’s certain that there’s honor in the duty, and beauty in the doing.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 1979's 'Communiqué' is a Dire Straits album full of the delicate subtleties that make Mark Knopfler shimmer — that deep tobacco-soaked voice, the quick, fluid guitar, the lyrical wit.]
“Don’t ask questions, when there’s nothing in the bank,” Knopfler offers at one point during “Corned Beef City,” as he makes his slide squeal. “Gotta feed the kids and put the diesel in the tank.” Later on “Yon Two Crows,” Knopfler digs deeper in this idea of pushing forward, no matter the obstacle, no matter the cost: “All you’ll bring to this is muscle and grit. Persistence — that’s just about it.”
For all of the writerly detail, for all of the tasty licks, I was most moved by that sense of finding worth despite the compromises, the setbacks, the end of things. That’s a message that still resonates — now, maybe more than ever.
‘Privateering,’ recorded at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studiosm was produced by Knopfler and longtime collaborators Chuck Ainlay and Guy Fletcher. Featured musicians include Richard Bennett (guitar), Jim Cox (piano), Guy Fletcher (keyboards), John McCusker (fiddle), Mike McGoldrick (flute), Glenn Worf (bass), Ian Thomas (drums), Kim Wilson (harmonica), Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Ruth Moody, Paul Franklin and Phil Cunningham (accordion). Knopfler will be touring with Bob Dylan, beginning in October 2012.