That Mark Knopfler’s new double album, Privateering, is being issued in every global market except the United States would normally be a commercial death sentence. But this is an era when digital sales rule. The record’s overseas release means it is available through most online outlets at roughly the same price as if it had been released domestically.
Still, you have to admit that having Privateering unavailable in this country is a bit odd, especially with Knopfler opening a U.S. tour later this week with Bob Dylan. The reason? Knopfler’s Web site blames a “contractual dispute” that exists between the guitarist and Warner Bros., his label since the first album with Dire Straits was released in 1978. Universal is releasing the recording internationally.
Spelling out such an explanation is important, because Privateering is one of the most luscious-sounding albums of the fall, a two-disc set that frames pop and folk sagas in regal quiet while making an unexpected foray into the blues. Knopfler’s guitar work is beautifully understated, and his woozy vocals sound almost as sage-like as his storytelling.
Privateering isn’t a rock ’n’ roll album in any conventional sense, although it journeys frequently into the back alleys of the blues with Fabulous Thunderbirds chieftain Kim Wilson as co-pilot on harmonica. Don’t Forget Your Hat sets some earthy humor (“you don’t pay the piper; you don’t even pay the fuel”) against a healthy rural stomp, Hot or What struts with Dylan-esque wordplay (and delivery) over a meaty shuffle, and the best entry from the blues pack, Gator Blood, percolates with ample sass and vintage boogie propulsion.
But that’s just one side of Privateering. There also is a continuance of a Celtic streak that stretches through all of Knopfler’s post-Straits albums. His chief ally during these travels is the celebrated Scottish accordionist Phil Cunningham.
Haul Away leads this category with a dark sea story colored by fiddle, organ, forlorn whistle and Cunningham’s beautifully antique wheeze. Kingdom of Gold and the more Americanized Dream of the Drowned Submariner are equally wistful and emotive.
Does anything here sound like Dire Straits? Well, the trucking saga Corned Beef City (“it ain’t too pretty”) sure does with a loose, guitar-centric groove. But the showcase tune here is Seattle, a beautifully retiring meditation that places Knopfler’s cinematic blend of keyboards, pedal steel guitar and muted strings behind a love letter set under a Northwestern sky of almost enchanting gray (“we both love the rain’). Then the tune sails out on a low tide of longing guitar, the most familiar but private of Privateering’s confessional devices.