Mark Knopfler’s new album Shangri-La (recorded at Shangri-La Studios in Malibu) was released today. As well as the 14-track CD (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com), there’s a limited edition version available (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com) which also includes a DVD containing studio performance footage, MK’s commentary on the album, and interviews with the band. The general feel of the album is a collection of soft, very bluesy medium rock, with a southern states flavour; very much American in spirit, though nodding frequently towards Mexico and beyond. An infinitely cool, yet smoky sound, as immediately comfortable as an old leather armchair, it perhaps inherits more in overall feel from the first few tracks of Golden Heart, but in subject matter is very much an evolution of Sailing to Philadelphia with it’s increasingly post-mid-Atlantic perspective on the bread and butter country/blues/rock ballads of the south.
This is the kind of stuff that’s the perfect backdrop to clouds of warm smoke and drops of moisture on ice-cold beer, late in the evening in your favourite bar. It’s completely evening music; a thousand miles from Dire Straits, yet still with an unmistakable vein of sheer Knopfler running through.
I’ve been listening to Shangri-La for half a day now, and already I find it to be a beautifully comfortable and quietly confident mix of blues/rock and Knopfler’s still-jaunty vocals, softer than his usual stuff, and with a distinct edge of bittersweet reflection on times past. The material perhaps doesn’t strike as much on the first listen as his earlier solo work like the strongest tracks from Sailing to Philadelphia (including the title track, Speedway at Nazareth, Baloney Again and so on), but it doesn’t take long to realise that once again Knopfler has produced an understated work of relaxed genius. I’d personally rate it higher than The Ragpicker’s Dream and Golden Heart; at least the equal of Sailing to Philadelphia but in a rather different style.
It’s difficult to pick favourite tracks, even at this early stage, so I’ll just mention a few points from those which are playing as I write this. Our Shangri-La has Mark’s instantly-recognisable guitar producing haunting, stunningly beautiful sequences, the likes of which Darling Pretty from Golden Heart promised, but perhaps only delivered when played live. Somehow unrestrained compared to his earlier, more heavily produced material, and having all the more emotional resonance for its rawness and warmth.
Everybody Pays brings almost immediately to mind A Whiter Shade of Pale in its soft-focused, cosy nostalgia, and the single, Boom, Like That, has Glenn Worf’s distinctive Fender precision bass throughout; deep, heavy and swollen just to the point of being able to feel the vibration coming right across. The album often calls up the image of endless miles of middle-American highway rolling by on a long, solitary night-time drive away from whatever life you had before. A twilight album, to be sure, but certainly not of a career if the level of creativity and ability to master diverse genres are anything to go by.
Many of the songs have the quality of being that song playing on the jukebox (which no doubt buzzes with faulty neon), when last orders is called; the most poignant song of the evening, not overly melancholy in and of itself, but made so by the atmosphere it conjures.
Memorable, accessible, and unquestionably mature, Shangri-La is an extremely worthy addition to Knopfler’s catalogue, and deserving of attention.