Mark Knopfler: back behind the plough

23:29, Sep 13 2012

When I interviewed Mark Knopfler back in 2009, ostensibly to promote his then new album, Get Lucky, he used the metaphor of getting behind the plough - that was what songwriting was to him; that's what it (and music) was about. Turning up, doing the work. I like that. It's hardly a new concept: Tom Waits used the idea on his best album, Mule Variations, where he sung about how you've "got to get behind the mule" and do some ploughing - and the album reflected that he had, finally, done just that.

But I thought about this again, hearing the track After the Bean Stalk, the final song on Knopfler's latest album, Privateering. He uses this metaphor in the lyrics, singing of how he's "still up in the morning to get behind the plough".

Privateering is a 20-track double-album. Given Mark Knopfler's standing in cool-circles, which is to say very much out of the circle (and in fact very much square), the thought of a double-album at this age and stage is most likely an easy chuckling point; no point listening to it, just strike it down, after all this guy wore a headband and wristbands and wrote Walk of Life. He must be bad.

I've followed Knopfler's career my whole life. I've written previously about the first Dire Straits album - a gem, and I don't think the band went wrong across its first four albums. The big one Brothers in Arms  - is a product of its time, an album mired in ugly production and superficial gloss. It is the album that made Dire Straits superstars, and people want to hold that against Knopfler to this day. That seems sad to me. I'm no fan of Walk of Life - and compositionally I think the album is Knopfler's weakest set of tunes. But there's still, if you can look beyond the gloss and gimmickry, some songs - that album's monumental success is something that Knopfler seems to be atoning for with each and every solo release.

I didn't expect to be singing the praises of a brand new Mark Knopfler album in 2012. But I'm happy to. I love this album - it's one of my favourites of the year. The world may not need a new 20-track double-album from the Knopflersaurus, a figure held up as the living embodiment of all that is wrong with dinosaur-rock by those serious folk who feel it was everything to live through the punk and post-punk movements and have only ever thought of him as a pub-rock plodder.

But if you listen to this album for the songs, what it is ultimately about, rather than with any baggage of what you think Dire Straits was about, you'll find a brilliant and beguiling mix of windswept and interesting ideas, folk and country and blues vestiges are stirred through Knopfler's Celtic roots; he's always - right from that first Dire Straits album - had a way of creating some weird (wonderful) English version of an Americana; it's about storytelling, about mood-conjuring and there's a soul and grit to so many of the songs on Privateering that lifts it up and above some of the filler that has plagued elements of his solo career (Sailing to Philadelphia, Shangri-La, Kill o Get Crimson and Get Lucky all had moments, but none of them ever felt like a complete album, all had filler). Surprisingly it's Privateering - the album of excess, in that it's twice as long as you might at first think it needs to be - that stands up as the best effort at a complete record, a necessary record; one that takes the spirit and feel of Golden Heart and The Ragpicker's Dream and combines, adding in some of the best songs Knopfler's conjured in an age, songs that feel as though they've been floating in the ether, waiting to get, er, plucked. Pinned down.

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Speaking of plucking, it becomes more and more apparent with every move, with every album and with every song on this new album, that Knopfler is a guitarist who has transcended the Guitar Hero status, a player who uses the instrument as a compositional tool, who thinks about the space and lines that he can coax from his axe as part of the soul of the song. Sure, any (good) guitarist might be seen (or at least heard) to be thinking when playing, the best make it look and feel effortless perhaps but Knopfler's sound is seamless, that distinctive twang has been refined, no longer (just) a signature-sound - it's now more a trademark-feel.

Privateering works for me because the guitar playing is gorgeous, inventive, always interesting. Privateering works for me because it is actually an audacious record - it begs for (and rewards) repeat listens; it's that rare thing too, a double-album that feels like it should be a double-album, not one that bubbled and simmered too long in the kitchen, that should have been whittled down on the porch to just one disc. A home grown collection that continues the legacy of a fine player and writer, a product of getting behind the plough and doing the work...

In line with listening to Privateering (over and over...) I checked out the doco Mark Knopfler: A Life in Songs. It's a great one-hour documentary, a must-see for fans. And it screens this Monday as part of the Prime Rocks series, 9.35pm, Monday, September 17. I thoroughly recommend it. And of course Privateering. One of my favourite records of this year.

Beyond the wonderful songs -  just to give you a glimpse here's album opener, Redbud Tree and here's the title track, Privateering - and the perfect-touch of Knopfler's playing, I'd like to mention how great his voice is on this record too. It's so often described as a warble, thought of perhaps as the weak link, a stolen-mumble that doesn't quite have the nonchalant coolness of J.J. Cale. My first thought on first listen of Privateering has stayed with me after umpteen spins: he's always had the voice of a 60-year-old. Now, at 63, Mark Knopfler finally - utterly, totally - suits his voice. He's grown into it, relaxed back into it. It finally feels perfect.

And that has gone on to inform what I think about Privateering. It feels perfect.

So, will you give this album a chance? Or have you done already? Or no chance, no way - Mark Knopfler is the enemy! What are your thoughts on Knopfler the writer and musician? Will you watch the Prime Rocks documentary? And what are your favourite songs and albums from the Mark Knopfler solo career?

Postscript: I am a huge fan of Knopfler's soundtrack work; I haven't mentioned it here because I think of the soundtrack works as something quite separate. In particular, 1983's Local Hero, the following year's Cal, 1987's The Princess Bride and 1989's Last Exit to Brooklyn were all formative albums for me, I love them more than any of the Dire Straits material, above and  beyond any of his solo (song-based) albums. And yet, dished off to the side, as they were, at an extraordinarily busy/productive time, they are also further proof of the fruits borne of hard labour; of the efforts put in from being behind the plough. 

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