Mark Knopfler - Shangri-La 
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Charles Andrews   
Tuesday, 11 January 2005

Mark Knopfler

format: 16-bit Stereo CD + DVD-Audio (2 discs)
label: Warner Brothers
release year: 2005
first release: 2004
performance: 8.5
sound: 9
reviewed by: Charles Andrews

The thick, fold-out cardboard cover of my double-disc copy of this shimmering gem of an album is already beat to hell from being transported everywhere and played in the car, in various computers, at friends’ homes and offices and in my spiffy new 5.1 system at home, probably twice as much as the usual victim of my review regimen, but the unusual and wonderful thing is I’m not the least bit tired of it yet. I’m still choosing to play Shangri-La for fun, not just review analysis.

Yet the salient feature of the recording that keeps jumping out every time I play it and drift in and out of listening to the words is – I have never in my life heard an album with such a total disconnect between the music and the lyrics. Musically, it’s gorgeous, delicate, sensual, involving, melodic, emotional, sumptuous, simple yet accomplished. (Notice the small neighborhood of the adjectives there: no blistering, rocking, funky, wailing, epic wall of sound, right?) So you drift along on Mark Knopfler’s beautiful melodies and the absolutely seductive lilt of his baritone voice and guitar, and fall in love with these songs that become like friends, new friends whose charm, grace and surface beauty so completely distract you that you don’t look too deep too often. But you catch a startling piece of lyric here and there that eventually makes you curious enough to put it all together, to either listen just to the words all the way through – tough to do – or go to the lyric sheet on the disc’s extras content. And here’s what you find.

Songs about gangland murders when Jags, flashy suits and slot machines invade the desolate landscape of child labor and black lung poverty in the coal mining country; the ruthless mindset (“competition?/send ‘em south/if they’re gonna drown/put a hose in their mouth”) it takes to create an American dream chain of hamburger joints; the “vision” of a glorious Vegas or Reno or Atlantic City rising from its tawdry past to a money-machine tawdry future (“I never gave a sucker an even break…/you gotta have a feel/for the stuff that sells”); looking to love as the only dim light to hope for after crawling back onto a dying boat in a dying fishing industry after an injury; the pathetic path chosen by an aging Elvis; the tough reality of the pay-to-play music biz (or any business, or just life); a spirit crushed and drifting in self-delusion after a love affair ends; on the run in South America for stealing from the mob; show biz as snake oil medicine show; and last but definitely not least, a sultry slow tango with exotic flourishes that I only this moment realized is not just a seamy, foul-languaged political cartoon of the ugly occupants of great halls of power, but is in fact the most clever and devastating portrait of the junior and senior Bushes (focus on Dad) I’ve run across in any medium: “Don’t Crash the Ambulance.” Remember what I told you – before I had the “Ambulance” realization just now – about the music seducing you away from the words, except in pieces you may not bother to construct into the finished picture for a while? But now that I’ve alerted you, you may hear “Ambulance,” and maybe every song, from the beginning for “what it is.”

But don’t. I think it would be a far different experience than first falling in love with the musical tone of Shangri-La. Isn’t that what falling in love is – that euphoric, fuzzy, grinningly unreal feeling, better living through chemistry, unsullied by the inevitable reality of discovering where the warts are? You wouldn’t want to miss that. And it can linger. Fall deeply enough in love with great beauty and you can always catch the buzz. Shangri-La is like a Tony Soprano with his lovable traits magnified; Carmela’s heart still flutters when he smiles that smile or brings her roses for no reason or works the barbecue for his beloved family, long after she’s found out what he’s really about.

Left out of the depressing litany of subject matters for Shangri-La songs were four that are a little different. “Song for Sonny Liston,” based on the true story (Nick Tosches’ “The Devil and Sonny Liston”) of the troubled heavyweight champ who shockingly lost his crown to the brash young Cassius Clay, is a musically uninventive little shuffle that’s nonetheless irresistible. You will sing along. It’s a dark bio but we all knew Sonny Liston was a brooding character with a disreputable past, pretty much unlovable despite his overwhelming athletic prowess. Not a revelation like the inside scoop on McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc (“Boom, Like That”) from his bio. “Donegan’s Gone” is the liveliest rave-up here, great fun, but it’s about a British music legend who … recently died. (Knopfler of course imitates Lonnie Donegan’s signature chicken scratch skiffle guitar style perfectly.) “All That Matters” sounds like a father’s touching bedside prayer to his daughter and son, but there seems to be something unsaid and possibly dreadful going on. He does not cherish them as the best things in his life, rather declaring “you’re all that matters/in this wicked world.” He intones, “well, I can’t stop the pain when it calls/I’m a man/and I can’t stop the rain when it falls/my darling, who can?” It sounds like an immediate concern, not a metaphorical one.

That leaves us with the almost-title cut, “Our Shangri-La,” as the sole lyric ray of sunshine and romance, and even then Knopfler reminds us how fleeting such moments are. It was probably partly inspired by the Malibu recording studio of the same name where this was created, a place he seems quite fond of.

So if the stories are so involving and the music so wonderful and the production so stellar, why didn’t it get higher marks? Well, on a scale that does go from 10 all the way down to 1, those are high marks. Shangri-La suffers only slightly from a lack of musical diversity. But sometimes, when the music is this pleasing, that may be a really good thing.

One last note. It’s so interesting that when I mention this recording so many people get a blank look on their face. You have to repeat, “Mark Knopfler … the guy from Dire Straits … ‘Sultans of Swing’ … ‘I Want My MTV’” – and then you get ‘Oh yeah! Yeah. I love him.’” My research surprised even me to see the extent of his commercial impact. There’s a lot of disagreement on sales figures, but Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms alone has sold somewhere between 15 and 23 million copies. The band makes any list of the top 20 sellers of all time. A recent British magazine survey, based on album sales, audience sizes and time spent on the charts named DS #6, ahead of Bruce, the Beatles and Bob Marley. Knopfler is among the U.K.’s wealthiest musicians, with a personal worth estimated at $85 million. All of this is interesting only in context of his relative obscurity in this country. I also remember seeing several sources naming him one of the best rock guitarists of all time; I’ll sure go along with that. I’d rank him with Richard Thompson as someone who plays with virtuosity pretty much every style of music in existence, and as one of only a handful whose style is so distinctive you know in 10 seconds blindfolded it’s him. This is only his fourth solo album in the 10 years since he officially retired Dire Straits, but he’s done 10 soundtracks over the years as well. The pairing of his songs and playing with the unmistakable basso of Willy deVille in “Princess Bride” is priceless.

The sound shimmers and sparkles remarkably. Six guys are in the band but this is a textbook example of economy: Knopfler and Richard Bennett on guitars, two keyboards, bass and drums, but because everyone plays so sparingly it sounds like less. Co-producer/engineer Chuck Ainlay and Knopfler get huge credit for the sound, which, along with the musicians’ playing, serves the material perfectly. These are accomplished musicians who have complemented Knopfler well for most of a decade, and they each know how important it is what’s left out – to play simply brilliantly.

Amazingly, they claim about half the numbers were done on the first take – live, basically. Even when they went for a few more takes, they came back to the first. They were all playing together in the same studio, an oddity in recording these days. The live-ness of their methods makes the mix and clarity of the sound that much more extraordinary.

The interaction of the two guitarists is something to behold. It’s like Bennett is Knopfler’s alter ego. I was blown away to see in the video portions that Bennett is playing some of the parts I would otherwise have positively identified as unmistakably Knopfler. But I always give credit to the leader for creating the sound, even if he does it through someone else’s fingers.

The 5.1 mix just ups the ante. You can really notice the difference in resolution, especially in the vocals, which show more echo and much more presence than in the stereo mix. The guitars, rarely more than two at a time, nonetheless fill the space, floating and expanding in an instinctive slow ballet, sometimes coming in directionally but without unnecessary dramatics. Direction and placement are used effectively for the other instruments as well, especially the organ.

Besides credits (notable for a listing of all instruments played) and lyrics, there’s an “About the Music” video, which is interesting in spite of its half hour length and lack of dramatics, though it could have used a little editing to reduce some of the talk about how well the band knows each other and plays together organically. Got a little tired of that word. It includes live in-studio playing footage, but you get more of that through the inclusion of four songs seemingly recorded live (and not different from the album versions), three from the album (“Boom Like That,” “Everybody Pays,” “Whoop De Doo”) and one older fave of Knopfler’s, with a great opening , “Summer of Love.” Nice to have.

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