Privateers were essentially pirates who had received temporary dispensation (often in times of war) from a king, a governor, or the regent of a particular trading company—“Licensed to take prizes with a letter from the king,” as Mark Knopfler sings on the title track of his new double album, Privateering. Such career scallywags sailed the liminal space between crime and duty, or (rather) found political opportunity to turn their criminal skills to account; this arrangement was always tenuous, and always temporary. To call Privateers a concept album would be somewhat amiss though. Knopfler’s notion of a traveling demimonde, always watching the sun from “a shore that isn’t mine,” is more of an organizing musical idiom that conjoins conventionally bittersweet love songs (“Miss You Blues”), distorted Dobro-led stomps (“Corned Beef City”), and the Leonard Cohen-esque “Go Love” (a beautiful bummer of a tune, which Knopfler phrases with singular grace on his slide).
The album pits Knopfler’s guitar against a seafaring rabble of strings, flutes, and the occasional pennywhistle, and the result is far more fun than this arrangement might suggest. On a 20-track effort there’s no avoiding fool’s gold, but Knopfler finds plenty of the real stuff too. Lyrically, he doesn’t emphasize the more swashbuckling aspects of the privateer’s life, preferring to extend his metaphors into questions of community and what constitutes it. Even the titles of Knopfler’s most famous work—“Sultans of Swing,” Brothers in Arms, and so on—are galvanized by a sense of outnumbered camaraderie and the idea that bands, musical or otherwise, are the social bodies in which we find our best selves. At the same time, lucre and the perils that attend it receive no little attention on Privateering (see: “Kingdom of Gold”). The man who sang about “Money for Nothing” in 1985 has finally made an album about pirates.
The filler songs smack of a desultory collaboration between Ry Cooder and James Horner, and the possibility that Celine Dion will slink into the proceedings seems, at times, very real. Knopfler rarely deviates from the blues-and-brigand palette, but when he does the results are strong. “Seattle” expands the string section from quartet or octet to what sounds like a chamber orchestra, and the band quietly stirs itself from melancholy to the tipsy exuberance of nostalgia, while Knopfler observes the silvering of his hair without vanity or regret, perhaps because he’s in love with the only woman who “loves the rain” as much as he does. “Still believe that there’s somewhere for us/But now it’s something that we don’t discuss/You’re the best thing that I’ve never knew,” he sings, with the same gravelly, chatty approach to melody that makes even his most processed ’80s music feel like a joke between friends.
That same voice notes its own decline on “Used to Could,” oddly the most upbeat tune on Privateering. Knopfler’s an old salt, and one wishes that this saga of an album carried one or two youthful punches, but few other aging guitar heroes could pull off a double album about piracy. Keith Richards doesn’t count, since he basically is a pirate at this point. (Unlike Richards, Knopfler has never fractured his skull and bloodied his bandana by falling out of a coconut tree in Fiji.) If Privateering has its dead spots, Knopfler still remains a more consistent songwriter than most of his dad-rock compatriots. The pleasure isn’t in the gimmick or the dress-up, but in the disciplined play of emotion behind them.