The Lindsey Buckingham Parlor Game
“Reading the paper, saw a review
Said I was a visionary, but nobody knew
Now that’s been a problem
Just like I’m living somebody’s dream”
—“Not Too Late”, Lindsey Buckingham, 2006
This confessional couplet opens Lindsey Buckingham’s new album, Under the Skin. Even though Buckingham helped reinvent Fleetwood Mac with radio-friendly SoCal rock 30 years ago, he remains one of rock music’s most underappreciated auteurs. Tusk(1979), Fleetwood Mac’s unqualified masterpiece, was largely informed by Buckingham’s very un-crystal like visions. In retrospect, it plays like a beta test for a solo album yet his subsequent solo career is seldom acknowledged or discussed. Under the Skin marks Buckingham’s fourth solo album since his debut in 1981 and he now appears to be on a mission to raise his profile. As an opening statement, “Not Too Late” paints the picture of a musician who has yet to realize his finest hour insofar as establishing a solo career independent of Fleetwood Mac. Under the Skin marks the first step along Buckingham’s artistic regeneration since the most recent Fleetwood Mac reunion in 2003 and, while not completely accessible, the album is nevertheless intriguing.
Even before the first strum of guitar, it’s apparent that Lindsey Buckingham is a happily married husband and father. The album is adorned with sun-drenched photos of the singer with his wife, Kristen, and three young children, William, Leelee, and Stella. Five songs into the album, “It Was You” summarizes the chronology: “Back in ‘99/ Our love just in time/ If we had to wait/ We would be too late/ Caught in history/ Future I couldn’t see.” One also senses that family life is a catharsis of past demons for Buckingham by his guttural intonation of “I waited for a woman/ Who was true/ I waited for a woman/ It was you.”
The songs translate best to the listener when Buckingham bares his soul, clearly and concisely, as he does on “It Was You”. Much of Under the Skin, however, is awash with lazily recycled musical and lyrical motifs. The instrumentation is sparse—often just Buckingham, his guitar, and percussion. A one-man band is no easy task, and Buckingham, who produced the album, adds an echo to his voice to quell the minimalism. On “Cast Away Dreams” and “Down on Rodeo”, for example, the effect tends to obscure the lyrics and distract from focused listening. His melodies are repetitive and the echo only intensifies the sense of repetition. “Show You How”, which was delivered to radio, is a good tune, but after a verse or two, doesn’t progress beyond the initial hook.
There’s no denying Buckingham’s guitar virtuosity, though. “Not Too Late” and “Shut Us Down”, in particular, exemplify how much the guitar possesses Buckingham. Just as riveting on the latter tune is its subject matter, a parlor game of inferences. Co-written with Cory Sipper, it’s tempting to interpret the lyrics to “Shut Us Down” as a letter to ex-flame Stevie Nicks: “I know that I treat you unkind/ And long ago I lost my mind/ And even after all these years/ I can’t even see you clear.” Buckingham embalms his songs on Under the Skin with such naked emotional intimacy that it is completely plausible “Shut Us Down” is a window to how Buckingham feels about the woman he was nearly married to thirty years ago.
I don’t fault Buckingham for using music as a vehicle to heal and sort out his feelings. The issue is how well he connects with listeners. Clearly, Buckingham longs to share these songs and wants them heard, otherwise he could have waited for another Fleetwood Mac project to present itself. There’s no denying that he has his own style, but a little more variety in execution might make Under the Skin a more enthralling and thus, listenable experience. (“Someone’s Gotta Change Your Mind” does have a rather elaborate orchestration but, once again, suffers from an uninspired melody.)
I’m sure Under the Skin excites someone out there besides Buckingham and his family, to whom the album is dedicated, but the album convinces me that Buckingham’s work is best heard in the context of Fleetwood Mac. Strangely, I don’t look forward any less to hearing his next solo album, slated for a 2007 release. Stay tuned.