Sunday, August 23, 2020

Retrospective: Trouble in Shangri-La • Stevie Nicks

Whether they collect, compose, record, or write about it, those with a passion for music often consider it an important generational art form. We remember that one record that a mother would play every Saturday morning during a family breakfast, or the one to which a cousin introduced us at a sleepover. Memories linger from that long road trip when the radio numbed the sound of parents’ bickering from the front seat, or that time when you tried to introduce your mother to P!nk’s “Get This Party Started” and she found it so annoying that you were banned from listening to it. (While I can’t confirm, I believe that last one may have been a memory just for me.)

My parents were not particularly fanatical about music. Once a state of the art system when my parents were college-aged, the large stereo in their living room today is in the same state as it was throughout my childhood: Two blown-out tower speakers, a half-functioning tape deck, and a jammed six-CD player are the dusty relics in home electronics. Their walnut display case is used as a mantle of sorts for portraits and figurines. My mother had one CD in her car for years – a CD single of Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow’s “Picture” – and had long abandoned Richard Marx and Joan Jett cassettes from her younger years in the bottom of that stereo cabinet. It was considered lucky to hear more than two songs per station before my father flipped to the next frequency on the car radio.

I learned most about my parents’ music tastes in the car from those stations. My upbringing in rural Ohio was relatively unremarkable compared to my fellow Midwesterners: Corn fields, small towns, and endless radio stations on the dial that all played a stockpile of the same country and rock staples. My parents’ preferred stations introduced me a narrow stock of familiar songs from what I considered to be anonymous voices. I knew I liked some of the songs but could recite only by emulating the guitar line or mumbling a few incorrect lyrics based on what I could understand; I also didn’t hesitate to make objections to those I disliked, purely out of retaliation for not having musical control on our trip to a Saturday night family dinner. 

During those trips, Stevie Nicks entered my life, though I didn’t know it. Between Fleetwood Mac and her solo material, Nicks was a fixture on the radio rotation lists. I knew the “Edge of Seventeen” guitar riff before the “Bootylicious” sample – perhaps a feat for my age bracket – and “Landslide” was a particular favorite for five-year-old me when my parents had control of the listening selection. Her nasal-forward, ragged-edged inflection and poetic nature struck me even as a child, when I could identify her as only the “white winged dove” singer. Stevie Nicks didn’t walk red carpets or make guest appearances on Nickelodeon, so I didn’t know her or Fleetwood Mac by name until high school – much later in life than probably acceptable – and I certainly was unaware of her turbulent legacy that should be required education for any music aficionado.

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Released in 2001, Trouble in Shangri-La may not be Stevie Nicks’ objectively best or definitive record; often that title is handed to Bella Donna, her initial schism from Fleetwood Mac that would foreshadow subdued involvement with the band’s subsequent 1980s records as her solo career proved more sustainable than her bandmates’ endeavors. But Shangri-La is perhaps the surest sign that Nicks’ and her songwriting can endure nearly anything. “Silver Springs” still cuts to the bone each and every listen for the same reasons that the material on this record – much of it written decades prior, though newer cuts like the title track and "Bombay Sapphires" are among the most potent and most signature Stevie of the bunch – translates well, even on the other side of a second drug addition and a production re-imagining in a musical landscape much different than she had last encountered.

After her rehabilitation from a decade-long cocaine addiction in 1986, Nicks was made dependent on a prescription tranquilizer to keep away from cocaine. The prescribing doctor, she told Rolling Stone in 2017, "stole eight years of my life." And it showed through her music. Her only full-length record released in that time frame – Street Angel, dropped in 1994 – is dampened under the drug’s power. In a Time Out magazine profile in 2001, she said, “So I listened to the record – I'm off all the drugs – and I knew it was terrible. It had cost a fortune. I tried really hard to fix it, but I couldn't. So I had to go and do interviews for it, just like I'm doing right now, and it was everything I could do not to say to the interviewers, ‘I hate this record.’” But for as much as she was disconnected from Street Angel, she can be heard more connected than ever in the Trouble in Shangri-La tracks.

For Trouble in Shangri-La, Nicks entrusted production rights largely to Sheryl Crow, who built a booming solo career in adult contemporary music in the ‘90s, and John Shanks, who before that point had worked mostly with singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge. (Soon after this record, he would – perhaps to his chagrin now – serve as executive produce on two of the three Ashlee Simpson records.) Their now charmingly dated early aughts production softens Nicks’ bedrock with adult contemporary and folk inflections. Ultimately, the record swirls with feminine collaboration: Crow, Natalie Maines, Macy Gray, and Sarah McLachlan – quite the timestamp of 2001, if I’ve ever seen one – all appear within record’s framework alongside Nicks and her two longtime back-up singers, though their presence never impedes on a vision that is singularly Stevie.

• • •

Especially in contrast to her Fleetwood Mac bandmates, Nicks specializes in mystique but leaves no question as to her subject. Like all her records in the new millennium, Shangri-La benefits from revitalized demos written in the creative highs and personal lows of the Rumours era – so especially in the record’s front end, her time with Lindsey Buckingham becomes her muse. “Sorcerer” and “Candlebright,” both Crow reworks of early demos, sees present day Nicks reflecting on a novice version of herself – one who had no idea of the successes she’d have nor the prices she’d pay to earn them. A career highlight, “Planets of the Universe” builds from a scenic painting into a fury so harsh that Nicks scaled back these last stanzas for the album cut as not to offend: “Take your leave of me now. Disappear through the year. I wish you gone and I don't care,” she sings of the man with whom she shared – and would continue to share – the stage for years. 

Nicks became the reigning queen of rock and roll on that stage, having been the only woman to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. But on Shangri-La more than any other record to date, she embraces change and veers toward country and folk music: “With Trouble in Shangri-La, I really felt that I was making a step away from the past. [...] Because when you're in a great old band that still exists, you can always live on that... you can always be that. Or you can go ahead and do your own thing along with doing that,” she told VH1 while promoting the record. While something like “It’s Only Love” sounds more like Sheryl Crow karaoke, the most subtle moments of change may shine brightest: Nicks dips into her chest for the lowest notes on “Every Day” and reaches upward into a rare falsetto on “Candlebright.”

When she was uninspired in the mid-‘90s, she asked fellow rock heavyweight Tom Petty to write songs for this record over dinner: His response inspired “That Made Me Stronger" and earned him a warm message of thanks in the album's liner notes. “Well, you know me better than I know myself. Can you write this for me? He says, ‘No, you write your songs yourself,’” she sings. She may not have created all these songs herself – in fact, much of this record seems to have been birthed from the ad hoc sessions and close collaboration that Nicks hints did not happen within the tough love and tight schedules of her earliest solo days – but she pushes her creative vision and takes ownership over the results. While it is typical of "comeback" records that arrive long after an artist's initial boom tend to be crushed beneath an overall legacy, Trouble in Shangri-La is an essential career milepost and the first true renaissance of Stevie Nicks.

Trouble in Shangri-La was released on May 1, 2001, under Reprise Records.

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