Mark Knopfler's now produced more studio albums as a solo artist, than he did with the band that he will forever be remembered for, Dire Straits. Discounting various soundtracks and side projects, his seventh solo outing Privateering is an ambitious double record that continues his latter day purple patch. Equal helpings of Celtic inspired folk, traditional blues, country, and that Geordie sense of humour, make the 20 tracks here less of a marathon, and more a stroll down memory lane.
It's also clear that the break in recording to join a European leg of Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour, helped to galvanise the material. There's a loose theme about life on the road to be found, signalled by the historic naval roots of the album title itself. The act of Privateering was to join the crew of a privately owned vessel to aid the state during wartime. A modern interpretation of that could well be to join a band and make a stand against the world around you.
It seems that is Knopfler's intention here as some gentle political commentary occasionally bubbles to the surface (The cash in hand scraping by of 'Corned Beef City' springs to mind.). Even the album cover of a beaten up van suggests a touring mentality, and a brief glimpse of the track listing indicates an ever-changing landscape (for example 'Redbud Tree' and 'Seattle'). With a six night stint booked at the Royal Albert Hall next year, it seems that Knopfler is also very at home on tour, and Privateering will serve well to bolster an already expansive set list for those shows.
One of the standout tracks 'Radio City Serenade' starts with one of the most memorable lyrics from the record; "You've got to have no credit cards, to know how good it feels". Knopfler is pining for a more simple time as trumpets, guitars and violins create a bustling cityscape in his ode to New York. Elsewhere a character from a Dire Straits song seems to have been given a blues makeover. 'Hot Or Not' has that swaggering almost spoken vocal delivery that Knopfler first used on 'My Parties' (which can be found on Dire Straits' final album On Every Street). But here, instead of a comment on yuppie culture, he re-imagines the protagonist as a Mississippi delta gambler on a winning streak ("I'll read 'em like a book. Let's go have a drink or two and talk about the scalps I took."). With a traditional blues backing complete with harmonica and piano it's the perfect atmosphere for Knopfler to pull out one of his trademark solos too.
That's perhaps the point of Privateering, no matter where Knopfler takes the listener on his whistle stop tour of musical styles, his unique guitar picking is never far away. While some of the lyrics are world weary and tinged with regret, there's a certain joy to be found in his chameleonic guitar playing. Knopfler's also put together a very versatile band which shares the spotlight on many occasions. He may well be the captain of this ship, but it's his crew that keep it on course. While those hoping that Knopfler may be heading back to safer waters may be disappointed here, he's embraced roots music wholeheartedly and with some real success.