It isn’t as though Lindsey Buckingham intended to take 14 years to make another solo album. It isn’t as if he hadn’t tried numerous times to resist the lure of another reunion with Fleetwood Mac.
It’s just that, to paraphrase Al Pacino, whenever Buckingham thought he was out, they’d pull him back in.
“There was a pattern of that happening for quite a while,” the singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist admitted by phone from Chicago midway through his first Mac-free tour in more than a decade.
“Even before `Out of the Cradle’ (his last solo effort, from 1992) that would happen. There was a period before then when somehow a lot of the material I was writing ended up on ... uhhh ...” He chuckled. “Whatever that was called.”
“Tango in the Night,” from 1987, the last proper Fleetwood Mac album - that is, the last one to feature the principals who recorded the 1977 blockbuster “Rumours” - until 2003’s “Say You Will.”
“Right, that’s it. That stuff was intended to be for a solo album. This has been happening for many, many years, of getting into a groove on my own terms, then having my intentions or needs intervened at the 11th hour. Which often leads me to be mindful of the greater good.”
And he has put such wishes ahead of his own creative desires time and again. While working on a follow-up to “Cradle” in 1997, for instance, with the Mac’s namesake rhythm section - drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie - he was persuaded to set aside his plans and instead bring back pianist-vocalist Christine McVie and former flame and writing partner Stevie Nicks. That led to an MTV special and album (“The Dance”) and enormously lucrative tour.
The pattern repeated itself three years ago. Buckingham was again working on an insular, home-recorded, decidedly nonmainstream solo album when, once more persuaded by the others to think bigger and more commercially, most of its tunes were pillaged for another Mac disc, the coolly received “Say You Will.”
Not that he’s bitter about that. “At least from my perspective there are a lot of wonderful moments on that album,” he says. “Whether it hangs together as a whole piece, you know, that’s debatable. Certainly a lot of politics went into it, as usual - its construction, its sequencing. But in retrospect, it seems like all the material that ended up on `Say You Will’ was more appropriate for that anyway.”
One project, however, tends to lead to another: The richly textured intimacy of Buckingham’s acclaimed new work “Under the Skin,” wouldn’t have happened without his “Say You Will” experience - specifically the tour that followed it. With Christine McVie opting out, “It opened up this whole arena for more ... testosterone on stage, shall we say.”
More to the point, it allowed Buckingham a grander spotlight, which he maximized by exploring tricky solo acoustic terrain on two reworked numbers, “Big Love” and “Go Insane.” “They had both been ensemble pieces that became signature pieces on a single guitar on that tour. That was the starting point for thinking along the lines of what this new album became.”
Yet, as he’s quick to note, much of his work has become cyclical. The array of subtle but hypnotic effects used on “Under the Skin” in many ways plays like the full flowering of eccentric ideas that have crept into all of Buckingham’s work since he produced the Mac’s 1979 studio opus “Tusk.” The sales of that challenging album were something of a letdown after the unprecedented success of “Rumours” but its stature has only grown as the decades have gone by.
Buckingham often refers to the bedrock approach set forth on that offbeat gem as “the left side” - of his brain, of a sonic style, definitely of the commercial spectrum.
“`Tusk’ was the moment of definition for me, of drawing a line in the sand,” he explains. “Whatever I’ve defined myself as, in terms of drawing from that left side of the palette and somehow balancing that out with something more mainstream - which can be more than a little neurotic, I realize - it all stems from that.
“That album was such a great release for me. But it also shifted the dynamic between me and the band. After it didn’t sell 16 million copies, a dictum was handed down: `Lindsey, we can’t let you produce records.’ That’s what led me to do solo albums in the first place.”
All of his subsequent solo work - from 1981’s “Law and Order” and 1984’s “Go Insane” on through “Cradle” and the new “Skin” - has proven far more introspective and evolutionary than his Fleetwood Mac sides. It seems therapeutic, each album reassessing his life and reputation.
And nowhere is that more evident than on “Under the Skin.” Now 57, married since 2000 and the father of three kids (Will, Leelee and Stella), Buckingham seems content at last in songs like “Show You How” and “It Was You.”
“Having stability at home actually gives you a creative foundation,” he says. “All the things we did all those years ago when we were living a lifestyle, abusing substances, that feeds into a subculture thought that it’s something you have to do in order to be creative. Obviously that’s not the case. It’s really more about your focus and how much of your idealism you can keep intact.”
But elsewhere on an album teeming with mesmerizing finger-picking and haunting, delicate soundscapes Buckingham continues to grapple with the plight of the overlooked genius. It’s right there in his opening statement, “Not Too Late”: “Reading the paper/Saw a review/Said I was a visionary/But nobody knew/Now that’s been a problem/Feeling unseen/Just like I’m living somebody’s dream.”
“Some people have misconstrued that song to think that I literally feel unseen or literally think of myself as a visionary, which isn’t the case. It’s more about the difference between what people perceive you to be and how you perceive yourself - and the pitfalls between the two. It’s about what one has to do to hold that line in the sand, and how the psychology you sometimes have to employ to do so can keep you invisible, apart from the machinery.
Now, however, it appears that Buckingham may be artistically free from the machinery - the industry that is Fleetwood Mac - once and for all.
“Touring is one animal,” he says. “I would not disagree with anyone who has the notion that we’ll tour again at some point. Maybe not till 2008, depending on what goes on with me.” But another Mac album? “To me that would totally hinge on Stevie, and my last understanding was that she wasn’t interested in making any more new music.
“That could change. Sometimes she’ll react strongly one moment, then think it over and change her mind, as we all do. But for now, I feel like I have people in my corner at (longtime label) Warner Bros. People saying, `Do this, and if you want do another album in short order’ - which is what I’d like to do - `then do it. And if Fleetwood Mac is knocking, let `em knock for a while.”
Finally, it seems, everything is in place for Buckingham to come into his own.
“It really feels like the best time of my life.”
He let out a laugh. “Now I’m just waiting for the bottom to drop out.”