The first two albums Fleetwood Mac released after Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Christine McVie, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood provided the pop soundtrack of the late 1970s. The tender nature of singles like “Landslide,” the mysticism of “Rhiannon,” and the bold confessional nature of “Go Your Own Way” and “The Chain” struck a chord with anyone with a radio and a pair of working ears. Rumours would go on to be one of the top ten selling albums of all time. It continues to resonate today as much as it did when it was first released in 1977, influencing musicians for generations to come, providing the soundtrack for ’90s presidential campaigns, and continuing to set itself upon the lofty perch of various “all-time best album” lists.
How did the quintet follow up such unprecedented success? By releasing Tusk, a double-album that in 1979 was one of the most expensive albums ever made. Tusk’s 20 experimental tracks felt like the disjointed work of three charismatic solo artists as opposed to five talented musicians. Despite the fact it sold two million copies in the United States, it was considered a costly failure, especially sitting in the long shadow cast by Rumours. Unless they’re Michael Jackson, how could any artist expect to come close to repeating the feeling and enormous popularity of an album that feels like lightning captured in a bottle?
Buckingham knew it couldn’t be done. It’s obvious in his studio work on the album (he took on most of the production duties for Tusk, and nine of the songwriting credits on the album are his) that it was time to move on and take a more contemporary and experimental approach to the music. This explains why 25 years later, history has been kind to the disc. It was an album that was not only a product of its time, with the album’s influences coming less from the soft rock era the band was leaving behind and more from the punk and new wave sounds that were emerging, but was also ahead of its time. Songs like “Think About Me” feel like they could come out of the indie rock music of today, chock full of rich layers that need to be peeled back with each listen to be fully appreciated. You can hear that influence — a desire to keep a song elegant in its simplicity — in songs like “Ask Me Anything” from The Strokes’ album First Impressions of Earth.
There are a lot of details that can be picked up on multiple listens of Tusk, which makes the album a far richer experience than the slick production on Rumours. On the strange, percussion-heavy, tribal title track (which supposedly refers to the euphemism Fleetwood has for his member), you can hear Buckingham give some studio direction, and then the drummer says “real savage like” as the USC Trojan Marching Band trumpets in. The one-off line isn’t repeated during any other live recordings of the song. “Here comes the night time looking for a little more/Waiting on the right time somebody outside the door,” a line on the raw and angry track “Not the Funny,” makes another appearance six spots down during “I Know I’m Not Wrong.” Then there’s Christine McVie’s quiet sultry repeat of the final line of “Never Forget,” the album’s lovely optimistic finale. It’s the perfect finish to an album that put everyone in the band through the emotional wringer.
It was the drama behind each of the songs that made Rumours so relatable to so many listeners. That album is infamous for chronicling the declining relationships and persistent addictions that took place, but on Tusk the music is much more heartbreaking, confessional, and personal. “What Makes You Think You’re the One,” just one of the many songs Buckingham wrote about Nicks, possibly addresses his former love’s cocaine habit by asking her if she is the one “who can live without dying.” Christine McVie sings to a lover (possibly McVie), who is cheating on her to “go and do what you want” as she waits for him to return on “Never Make Me Cry.” Last September, Nicks confirmed to Billboard that the urban rock legend about the song “Sara” was partially true: the song came from the name of the unborn child Nicks conceived with Eagles’ singer Don Henley while the couple were dating. As Nicks recalls:
“Had I married Don and had that baby, and had she been a girl, I would have named her Sara. But there was another woman in my life named Sara, who shortly after that became Mick’s wife, Sara Fleetwood.”
The most sonically thrilling aspect of the expansive Tusk is the harmonies of singers, thanks to Buckingham’s continued fascination with California bands like The Beach Boys. The background vocals on “Walk a Thin Line” mesh so well with the guitar virtuoso’s falsetto during the song’s chorus that you want to make that journey across the tightrope right along with him. The harmonies also shine on the heartbreaking “That’s All For Everyone,” as Buckingham “cries out for more” while trying to decide whether the band should continue on together considering all the personal turmoil their collaboration has wrought.
It was after this album that Buckingham, Fleetwood, and Nicks pursued solo albums. Buckingham went on to explore the experiments he started on Tusk with the album Law and Order. Nicks would grow into the role of the mythical diva she is today. The band as a whole went back to the formula they honed on Rumours with 1982’s Mirage, having spent their creative capital on an album that many see as an oddity, but holds up as a masterwork today.
Fleetwood Mac is scheduled to play US Airways Center on Wednesday, December 10.
Jason Keil / Phoenix New Times / Tuesday, December 2, 2014