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Mark Knopfler’s transition from Dire Straits to solo artist wasn’t as jarring as some may suspect. His move away from the more roots/rock-based music that made Dire Straits a favorite in the late ‘70s and mid-’80s toward a solo artist whose music is marked with a more quiet flair was helped by all the soundtrack work he did from 1983-2002. Plus, when you add a dose of Notting Hillbillies, it’s clear that Knopfler’s exit from arena act to low-key purveyor of bluesy music with celtic overtones was something that may have happened more naturally, rather than being calculated. Where can you go when the world wants “Money for Nothing” parts four, five and six and you as an artist would like to explore other musical avenues? The answer is not to burn out, but to fade away from the machine that wants to wring as much commercial success as can be extracted. And that’s what Knopfler did. He quietly exited from the spotlight and focused on the kind of music he wanted to explore.
However, since 1996, Knopfler hasn’t quite shed his Dire Straits roots in his solo work. There have been many songs he’s written after Dire Straits disbanded that harken back to those years, but more that demonstrate he’s trying to progress as an artist. While his output as a solo artist has been met with mixed views, he’s been very consistent as a musical artist who keeps at it — and his chart success outside of the United States reflects that his fans have stayed with him through the journey.
Now comes his seventh solo effort, Privateering — by far his most accomplished album since leaving Dire Straits. Knopfler has always been a fan of blues, folk, country, and celtic music. At times he’s struggled to tie it all together in a coherent manner, but on Privateering he succeeds. Part of the reason is that the album has a vibe that remains consistent on song after song. It’s not easy to blend the styles mentioned above, but Knopfler has found the right proportions and has produced a record that captures the instruments in a more natural way — rather than going for a slickness of sound that can sound quite sterile.
The album’s opener, “Redbud Tree” is a hushed song that features Knopfler’s signature guitar playing as a counterpoint to the more folksy quality of the tune. Moreover, Knopfler’s singing has never been better. His rough and “whiskey and cigarettes” voice has always been able to convey emotions that hit the right note, but while other performers like Dylan have voices that show their age, Knopfler’s is much clearer on this record than he’s been in the past. The result is broader range on his voice that’s able to convey both subtlety and power in ways I haven’t heard before. “Haul Away” harkens back to his work on “Local Hero” and “Cal” in style, but Knopfler’s singing is much more engaged than he has been in the past. “Don’t Forget Your Head” is a full on blues number that, well, sounds like an authentic blues song — rather than what some performers only present as a facsimile of one. The title track has some very nice acoustic guitar work that sounds like “The Man’s Too Strong” combined with the “Yo ho ho ho” of “Why Aye Man” in a more delicate manner. Indeed, throughout the album’s 20 songs, Knopfler expertly moves between blues, country, rock, and folk in such a way that, taken as a whole, never feels like hodgepodge of musical explorations.
Getting better with age is something many of us strive for, and for musical artists who reached commercial success early, it can feel as if there are very few musical horizons to explore without alienating one’s fan base. For Mark Knopfler, his style certainly has a broad appeal, but the style of his playing on Privateering shows an artist who doesn’t need to wow an audience with showy finger picking. Rather, Knopfler is at a stage of his career where his dedication to serving the song rather than bending it into a wholly commercial product is a key ingredient that makes his music more authentic and his stature in the music community so respected.