Despite popular narratives, Tusk isn’t all druggy, unabashed excess. Instead, this new sets shows the record as a deeply self-conscious document, the sound of a band that didn’t rebel against success so much as it misunderstood the privilege it brings.
Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 double album, is full of backstory. If its mega-successful predecessor Rumours had the Behind the Music-made backstories of deceit and division, Tusk (like the album itself) had several conflicting and chaotic backstories. It was the first record to cost over a million dollars. The affairs and divides of Rumours had, by 1979, grown into wider fissures between band members and, in some ways, full-on breakdown. There’s also the notion that this is the cocaine record, a product of excess and disconnection from sense.
Perhaps connecting all these stories together—or fracturing them further—is the idea that Tusk was Lindsay Buckingham’s brainchild. In the liner notes to this new Deluxe Edition of the album, Jim Irvin lays out Buckingham’s mindset post-Rumours. He didn’t want to lean back on success and make the same record again. He was also, so the essay suggests, influenced by the growing punk movement. That Irvin himself seems disingenuous about punk, referring to the movement as a “grubby breeze” and to the moderate chart success of the Ramones or the Damned as “if they were mould spores ready to discolor the musical wallpaper.” And though he sees punk and new wave as music with a “youthfully abrupt” attitude to the past, he does concede that Elvis Costello and the Clash, among others were “speedily evolving.” His attitude, colored by a clear love of the “plush delights” of Rumours, seems to echo Buckingham’s. He borrows the ethos of punk in claiming that Tusk was a “fuck you” to the business of music.
Digging into this new 5CD/DVD/2LP version of Tusk, with all its bonus tracks and liner notes and photos, suggests that Buckingham’s view of the record and its making veers us away from the notion of coke bloat. The album isn’t truly about unabashed excess. Instead, this new edition helps us to re-see the record as a deeply self-conscious document, wherein Buckingham’s turn to the Talking Heads and the Clash (influences largely absent on the actual music of Tusk) seem to suggest an any-port-in-the-storm approach to making new music. The truth, though, is that the success of Rumours was hardly a problem. Tusk suggests that Fleetwood Mac was for a moment—due to inexperience, drugs, personal rifts, whatever—unsure not of how to follow up Rumours, but of how to make any other record. The “idiocy of fame” Irvin suggests as a target for Fleetwood Mac rings as naïve even now. Buckingham’s genre-hopping was little more than diving into of-the-moment trends. Mick Fleetwood, according to liner notes, wanted to make an African record, calling it a “native record with chants and amazing percussion.” These starting points for Tusk suggest not a rejection of success, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of the privilege it brings.
That misunderstanding bleeds into the confused album itself. But this misunderstanding, and all the other confusions that went into the record, is what makes it so fascinating to listen to. For one, Buckingham’s conceits of ambition distract from some of the album’s purest pop moments. “Sara” shimmers” on clean, crisp pianos and beautiful vocals (Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie are actually the voices that keep this record together, though their influence is undersold in the liner notes in favor of the Buckingham defiant-burdened-male-genius narrative). “Over & Over” is bittersweet, dusty country-rock. “Storms” feels both spare and dreamy, leaning on vocal harmonies and tumbling guitar phrasings. “Angel” is stripped down and lean, letting the rhythm section take over rather than Buckingham’s layering. “What Makes You Think You’re the One” is catchy, straight-on power-pop, even with the high-in-the-mix snares and Buckingham’s unruly, edged vocals (which appear plenty on the record).
There is new territory here that works, namely the shift to a focus on drums in “Tusk.” Some of the skronky and brittle guitar tones feel fresh, though they sometimes land (“I Know I’m Not Wrong”) and sometimes fail (“Ledge”). But Tusk is at its best when it merely twists the band’s sensibility into something a bit more edgy and challenging than Rumours. The out-and-out experiments—like the hazy layers of “That’s All For Everyone” and the oddball chug of “Not That Funny”—feel awkward and pretentious, as if Buckingham didn’t quite understand the trends he was immersed in. Meanwhile, other places like “Honey Hi” just pile on the too-polished layers to saccharin effect.
Hearing Tusk now, all the ambition and hand-wringing around its creation feels largely unnecessary, with Buckingham’s ambitions for the album more relevant as ways to square with success that gave far more than it took away. But absent of all that outside story, it plays like a fascinating, uneven record. It is, like so many double albums, too long, but it also pushes the band places it hadn’t gone before. That those places are still firmly rooted in their pre-existing pop aesthetic, the very thing they claim to be turning away from, adds an interesting wrinkle.
The extras here further drive home the self-conscious nature of Tusk, suggesting even more that its excesses were more tantrum than rebellion. The “Alternate Tusk” included with largely unreleased takes is a compelling listen. It definitely doubles down on the album’s eccentricities. Buckingham’s vocals are as edged and shrill as ever. An extended take of “Sara” feels more spacious and haunted than the album take. “Storms” is spare and acoustic, with layers peeled back to reveal the song’s broken-hearted center. It plays like a long shadow to “Landslide.” “Tusk” gives the synths more space than the horns, but all the notes feel 8-bit next to the drums in the mix. Overall, this version is more disjointed and odd than the album version, and certainly worth a listen. But assembled here for a massive reissue, there’s a constructed feel to it that seems canned and, like so many other things around Tusk, overwrought. Like the original version, it is fascinating both when it struts with confidence and when it trips over its own self-aggrandizing ambitions.
The singles and outtakes drive home the defensive nature of Tusk, as well as the obsessive tinkering that happened as a result. Single versions of several songs skew any discoveries back to the middle. “Think About Me” is mixed to be all vocals and drums. “Sara” gets cut to a truncated, claustrophobic four-ish minutes. Even “Not That Funny”, a bad single candidate, sounds tame when those bleating guitars get sanded down. There are some interesting versions here, especially early takes on “Storms” and “Never Make Me Cry”, but while the evolution inherent in six versions of “I Know I’m Not Wrong” seems compelling on paper, in practice none of the takes stand out.
The two discs of live performances from the Tusk tour are—surprise, surprise—both fulfilling and frustrating. For one, they put songs from Tusk alongside songs from the band’s catalog, and the fit once again suggests the fleeting nature of the ambition of this double record. But the performances themselves are often ragged, sometimes exhausted. Nicks labors through a version of “Landslide” as if she’d prefer never to sing it again. Meanwhile, for a band not interested in repeating early success, they really stretch out a bombastic performance of “Go Your Own Way.” Between exhaustion and wanking, the band does sometimes nail it, though, especially a version of “Sara” here, a solid take on “Tusk”, and a charged, scuffed-up take on “Dreams”.
Tusk is an album that is excellent—and these uneven extras add interest to it—because it seems to come from such a flawed perspective. Buckingham and company spent over a million bucks on an album supposedly influenced by punk. The band was railing against a system that paid for that record. And, in the end, those pretenses of rebellion give way to simple artistic uncertainty. Even now, this set seems unsure of which way to present the album. We get a remastered version, an alternate version, a surround-sound DVD version, and a new pressing of the record on two LPs. This edition is an expansive, if expensive, gift to fans, and worthwhile in that regard, but its presentation also reminds us that Tusk isn’t the product of a burst of creativity or a major shift in artistic vision. Rather, it’s the sound of a band that didn’t know where to go, so it went everywhere at once. If that sounds dismissive, it’s not. Beneath all the conceits and mythologies that surround this record, it’s the basic fact that it’s always reaching that makes it the strange, great record it is.
Matthew Fiander / Pop Matters / Friday, February 12, 2016