Trouble in Shangri-La is Stevie Nicks’ first album of new material since 1994—since the successful Fleetwood Mac reunion, the release of her box set Enchanted, and her switch to the Reprise label. While Nicks’ place in rock history is already secure, there’s a lot riding on this album in terms of proving her future viability as an artist.
By her own admission, Nicks was not feeling confident of her songwriting abilities when she began working on Shangri-La. While she penned many of Fleetwood Mac’s best and most enduring songs and several of her solo hits, she’s come to rely on other songwriters in more recent years, with less satisfying commercial and critical results. When longtime friend Tom Petty refused to help her write material for the new album on the grounds that she was capable of doing it herself, Nicks decided to get back in touch with her muse.
As a result, Nicks wrote or co-wrote all but three of the 13 tracks on Shangri-La. The title track that opens the disc sounds like the witchy, mysterious Stevie we all know and love (or hate, depending on your tastes). The song’s narrative of love gone wrong is veiled in enough poetry and drama that it’s impossible to tell exactly what’s going on—but, hey, that’s how all epics work. “Shangri-La”, along with the two songs that immediately follow it, “Candlebright” and “Sorcerer”, provide convincing evidence that Nicks still has some classic tunes in her. “Candlebright” in particular captures the wayward spirit of Nicks at her finest. She’s truly lived the rock and roll life with all the rewards and sacrifices that implies. When she sings, “Well, you know me I’m a nomad / I can’t feel bad / About the way I am”, you know it’s the truth.
So, is this a great album that reestablishes Stevie’s genius? Well, not exactly. A close inspection of the CD’s notes shows that “Candlebright”, “Sorcerer”, and “Planets of the Universe” were written in the ‘70s. While it’s understandable that Nicks would want to record some of her better songs that never saw the light of day, the fact that the best songs on her new album are over twenty years old does little to prove her continuing significance as an artist.
The remainder of Nicks’ compositions on Shangri-La, while not as exciting as the opening tracks, are competent, mature pop-rock songs. While songs like “I Miss You”, the rocking “Fall from Grace”, and “Love Is” won’t rank among Nicks’ greatest works, they are strong, enjoyable additions to her catalog. The presence of Sheryl Crow as a producer and backup singer on several tracks gives the album a modern feel without overwhelming Nicks’ musical personality, which seemed to happen on her Jimmy Iovine-produced releases. Plus, the pair sound great harmonizing together, even to this admitted Crow-hater.
While Trouble in Shangri-La isn’t a masterpiece, it should put Nicks back in most folks’ good graces. For the first time in a long time, she’s made an album (mostly) of her own songs, and it’s a success. On “That Made Me Stronger”, Nicks’ telling of how Tom Petty got her writing again, she sings, “Everything has changed now / And I don’t want to go back / And nothing you can say can change my mind”. Let’s hope it’s the truth.