Mark Knopfler begins this album somewhere around 1964 - and in doing so underlines the timelessness of his gift for social commentary.
Ploughing a preparatory furrow in which songs of despair, regret, hope, longing and more despair will eventually take root, the incorrigible Geordie sidles into a snapshot of his homeland, the northeast of England, epitomised for him by the vision of a collier who 'cycles home from his night shift underground ... past the churchyard packed with mining dead'.
It's graphic, sobering stuff, and the laughs don't come much thicker further down the track listing. Sucker Row descends into the lurid world of the Las Vegas pimp; humour that deals with the 1950s spread of the McDonald's plague across the US, as in the intriguingly titled Boom, Like That, can only ever be black; and The Trawlerman's Song, narrated by a reluctant practitioner in another dying British industry, is hardly evangelical in its enthusiasm. But the elasticity of his range is undeniable: any time, any place, anywhere, that's Knopfler.
Those listeners still expecting to hear Dire Straits in every new Knopfler release (and they're out there, even though this is his fourth solo effort since disbanding the group in 1995) might identify with merely the dire in this collection: a languid set propelled by understated guitar and a vocal delivery increasingly in debt to J.J. Cale doesn't make for a party favourite. One explanation for the sparseness of its aural landscape might be that it was recorded while Knopfler was recovering from motorcycle-crash injuries of a fractured collarbone and six broken ribs.
So, Shangri-La isn't recommended for newcomers to Knopfler's oeuvre. They should spend a few years twisting to Money for Nothing before graduating to this flawed, quiet masterpiece.