Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Taking Tusk to Task

Not so long ago, as happens, I was in a Facebook debate about something I neither knew much nor cared much about. I won’t say with whom because I don’t want to mischaracterize his position. I don’t even remember what side he was on. But he certainly knows about music, which can often be a problem.

The debate—which involved a number of middle-aged know-it-alls, not just myself—was about the relative merits and ups and downs over the career span of Fleetwood Mac.

People—dudes, mostly—who know about music know well the Correct Fleetwood Mac Position (CFMP). According to CFMP, the band’s best period was in the 1960s, when they were a British blues band. When they met up with Californians Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and became enormously popular, so goes CFMP, it all went downhill.

All-knowing music dudes (AKMDs) will tell you it was because of the influence of then-couple Buckingham and Nicks, but I would suggest that the AKMD perspective is tainted by the “enormously popular” part of the equation. AKMD’s are all too often incapable of admitting, for example, that Miley Cyrus has a fantastic singing voice or that Justin Timberlake has some tight jams. Some AKMD’s can’t even bring themselves to enjoy The Beatles or Prince, although they’ll say they recognize what’s good about it, because they simply cannot like music with broad popular appeal.

Fleetwood Mac started as a good—sometimes great—band in the mold of a bunch of other British blues bands in the 1960s and, in the 1970s, transformed into a band making music not quite like anything anyone had made before and playing it with remarkable musicianship. And remarkable musicianship and innovative music are what AKMD’s ordinarily flock toward. Unless it’s enormously popular, that is.

This wasn’t exactly what the Fleetwood Mac Facebook fight (FMFF) was about, but it is what I was thinking about at the time. And in that fight, I found myself defending not only the their 1977 album Rumours (which is just plainly obvious) but also the follow-up, 1979’s Tusk. It was only upon further reflection that I realized I don’t really know Tusk. I mean, I think I do, but I asked myself when was the last time I heard it. I’ve never owned a copy. I think I heard it, or at least some of it, from my cousin Chloe when it came out. I think I read a review that said it was their "White Album" and that must have impressed me terribly as a youth hungry for conventional wisdom. [Rolling Stone’s review, it turns out, read “Like The White Album, Tusk is less a collection of finished songs than a mosaic of pop-rock fragments by individual performers."] I remember looking at the record cover at the store and wanting it, but it was a double album! $15.98 was a serious investment at the time—and then the time was gone.

I asked in the wake of that FFMF myself what songs I could name off of the album. Not even call to memory, just name. Well, there’s the title track, of course, which I will always love, but the only other song I could come up with was “Sara,” and once I realized I was singing Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile” in my head I couldn’t come up with the Fleetwood Mac melody. On an album with 20 songs, an album I was defending as great, I could remember exactly one. That’s five percent. That’s a nickel. That’s nothing. Apparently, I just like the idea of defending Tusk.

So, on Thanksgiving night, 2017, with the apartment to myself, I sat down to listen to Tusk, discs one through three of the 2015 remastered “Deluxe Edition” reissue, on Spotify: the entire set of songs thrice over in original and alternate takes, demos and remixes. (The last two discs in the set are recordings from the 1979-80 tour and contain material from other albums so they were excluded from this listening session.)

The first thing I discovered was that the song “Tusk” does not kick off the album, as it did in my memory. No, it’s the second to last song on the fourth side. At the same moment I discovered “Again and Again” is actually the lead-off song, a huge and enjoyable hit. The second thing I discovered is that, well, it all sounds like Fleetwood Mac. It was all familiar, pleasant, likeable, and certainly Christine McVie’s “Again and Again” and “Think About Me” and Nicks’ “Sara” (oh, right, that’s how it goes) were happy memories, but song after song passed me by like a gentle stream. That is, until a pair of Buckingham songs in the middle of what would have been side two.

Fleetwood Mac was a remarkably talented outfit. The rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie pounds without letting you know they’re pounding. Christine McVie brings a welcome maturity (not in age but in wisdom) to the songwriting while Nicks is the obvious allure but let’s face it, her presence necessitates McVie as a ballast. A band with Nicks as the only woman would be pretty hard to take, almost as bad as Jefferson/Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Starship. But Lindsey Buckingham, with his electric finger-picking and his under-control fury, is what puts the band above and beyond such cocaine-fueled yacht-rock compadres as Ambrosia, America, Orleans and the Eagles.

The one-two Buckingham punch of “That’s All for Everyone” and “Not That Funny” was the first time I felt glad to be listening to the record, for what I now felt like was maybe the first time. The songs aren’t up there with his contributions to Rumours  (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way”), but they’re intelligent, enjoyable pop. Side two ends with “Sisters of the Moon,” a great Nicks song. Or is it just great because it’s on the heels of the Buckingham double shot? No, it’s great and it’s on the heels of a Buckingham double shot. Fleetwood Mac is all about chemistry and pop albums—at least back when they were sold on physical media—are all about sequencing.

Nicks holds fast, kicking off side three with “Angel,” a song that seems to be about losing an angel but that she sings with such defiance you know she’ll find another. Then there’s a toss-away, two-minute Buckingham country stomp and then a pair of McVie songs. Why is it so hard to love McVie’s songs? Was the band toying with us by setting up the gypsy and the matron, so that when we get the latter we are left wanting the former? Unfair, I know, and I almost always like her songs whereas I can hate a Stevie Nicks song. Even “Don’t Stop,” her biggest song and likely the band’s best-known song, doesn’t hook in a way that can’t be unhooked. I was intrigued by the Buckingham/McVie record that came out last year. I excitedly listened to it once (via, I believe, an NPR stream), extolled its virtues on social media and never listened again. So, yeah, a pair of McVie songs. I’m sorry, Christine. I’d like to like you more than I do. And then a forgettable Buckingham song. They happen. More than occasionally. And from there the album kind of goes limp again. Until the second to last song. Ahhhhh… the second to last song.

The album’s titular and penultimate track opens with an indifferent crowd vacillating, wavering. It’s mysterious—are we at a concert? a party? a train station?—but we can’t focus long enough to consider the question because our thoughts are flattened by pounding drums. “Tusk” (the song) picks up from the reprise of the Beatles “Strawberry Field Forever” and gave us Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” (another song that AKMD could never admit is good) and then it’s gone. Three minutes, thirty-eight seconds, right in the ballpark for a pop song, but no matter how many times you hear it, you can’t get to it. It’s as impactful as it is ethereal. It was an unlikely hit single (#8 in the U.S., #6 in the U.K.) in a particularly unstable year for popular music.

Leaving it there wouldn’t have worked. Nothing on the album anticipates it, there’s no real right place to put it, but putting it last would have been selling us a beat bag. McVie’s “Never Forget” cradles us in its arms in the way she’s so good at. It’s just a pop album, she says, we’re just a pop band. Don’t worry about who’s hurting whom (she would, of course, know the proper usage of who and whom). We’ll all be fine, yourself included.

The deluxe edition reissue doesn’t add much more than minutes to the album. There’s multiple versions of “Tusk” as well as Buckingham’s “I Know I’m Not Wrong,” and we get the unreleased slightly-punkish-in-a-Richard-Thompson-sort-of-way Buckingham tune “Out On the Road.” But more is rarely better and it isn’t here. 

Rumours sold 10 million copies in the year after its release. Tusk sold 4 million in its first year. It was reportedly the all-time biggest sales decrease from one album to the next. But sales figures are unimportant. The question is, do I still want to defend Tusk now that I know what I’m defending? Well, I will argue that listening to the 70s version of Fleetwood Mac, listening closely, is a joy, even when the songs aren’t great. Pick a song and pick an instrument to follow. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you never noticed before. That doesn’t make it a masterpiece, but it does make for a band that can sustain the years.