At the recommendation of ben I’ve been listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, and it has really been growing on me. (And, should you ask, no, ben doesn’t only recommend older songs that are, once popular, now generally considered to be un-hip, and which end up being quite good. But you can tease him about it anyway.)
A quick background on the album, since I hadn’t known anything about it prior to listening to it. From AMG:
More than any other Fleetwood Mac album, Tusk is born of a particular time and place — it could only have been created in the aftermath of Rumours, which shattered sales records, which in turn gave the group a blank check for its next album. But if they were falling apart during the making of Rumours, they were officially broken and shattered during the making of Tusk, and that disconnect between bandmembers resulted in a sprawling, incoherent, and utterly brilliant 20-track double album. … Coming after the monumental Rumours, this was a huge disappointment, but the truth of the matter is that Fleetwood Mac couldn’t top that success no matter how hard they tried, so it was better for them to indulge themselves and come up with something as unique as Tusk. Lindsey Buckingham directed both Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, but he dominates here, composing nearly half the album, and giving Christine McVie’s and Stevie Nicks’ songs an ethereal, floating quality that turns them into welcome respites from the seriously twisted immersions into Buckingham’s id…. While McVie and Nicks contribute some excellent songs, Buckingham owns this record with his nervous energy and obsessive production, winding up with a fussily detailed yet wildly messy record unlike any other. This is mainstream madness, crazier than Buckingham’s idol Brian Wilson and weirder than any number of cult classics.
What’s surprising, listening to the album, is how accurate that description is. You have a variety of elements that sit somewhat uneasily beside each other, but which are both quite accomplished and compelling as the output of a band that is at the peak of its musical powers, able to do anything it wants, and completely miserable and who are able to use that to go in a genuinely experimental direction.
Think about it this way, it’s not unusual for successful bands to go into the album following a big hit by saying, “we don’t want to just repeat ourselves.” Particularly after they’ve been touring for a year playing the hit songs until they’re tired of them. At the same time, for this hypothetical band, the hit album was an expression of their musical tastes and interests and skills when they made. So if their only inspiration for the follow-up is the desire to not draw from that same well again it puts them in the spot of having to treat part of their own tastes as something to be avoided.
In this case I suspect, the emotional turmoil of the band made it easier to be in a genuinely different emotional and creative space than the previous album. This is largely hypthetical, I don’t really know Rumors or much about Fleetwood Mac in general, but it’s the narrative that Tusk conjures even if you haven’t heard the previous album.
So, start with of Lindsey Buckingham’s songs the pointed, What Makes You Think You’re The One“, all clipped lines and sharp percussion. It’s a cliche to describe angry songs as “self-lacerating” but there’s an odd effect from a song in which the emotions are so sharp, and the production is so careful. What would inspire somebody to spend that much time polishing something that’s so unhappy?
I’ve also been reading the 33 1/3 book on Tusk, which I would quote from but I don’t have it in front of me. But he makes the argument that Tusk really is “art for arts sake,” and “What Makes You Think You’re The One” is a good example of why you would say that. The lyrics are clever, the song is smart and well constructed, but compared to somebody like Elvis Costello, who’s debut album was released the same year as Tusk, what makes it really stand out is the feeling that Buckingham has spent so much time working on the precise sound for the song, and that it’s believable that he’s found something that he could love, not only as a vehicle for the emotion, but just as a musical experiment (reportedly he was a fan of The Gang Of Four, and they were an inspiration). It’s so carefully produced, and most of that production is done by Buckingham.
No contrast that with one of the Stevie Nicks songs, “Beautiful Child“. What grabs me about that song is also the sound but, in this case, the sound of her voice. Not many people can sing like that. As somebody said about the Marianne Faithful album Broken English, “you don’t need to have heard the ‘before’ to know that this is an ‘after.'” It’s a song about heartache, and she sounds like she’s managed to go through a wide enough range of heartache that it’s become a deeply complex and textured emotion. It’s remarkable the way in which her voice can simultaneously combine hurt, fatigue, defiance, anger, and tenderness. I tend to like singers who have a light touch and who can precisely express small shifts of emotion from phrase to phrase. This is different, it doesn’t feel like she creates an emotional narrative to the song, exactly, but that all of the emotions are always there at the same time. There is, of course, craft and skill to her singing, and something more than that as well.