My favorite Christine McVie song isn’t on Tusk. Sandwiched between two bits of exemplary crunch-pop on Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous 1975 American breakthrough, “Warm Ways” lives up to its title and then some. Over Lindsey Buckingham’s strummed acoustic, a John McVie bass line as plush as a comforter, and her own Fender Rhodes, McVie’s contralto radiates the heat of someone who enjoyed hours of incredible sex and can’t wait for the next round. But the music is wistful. The layers of gratitude McVie’s voice folds into the line “You made me a woman tonight” suggest a woman awake to erotic possibilities undreamt of twelve hours earlier.
Gratitude is a virtue too little expressed or written about in pop music, a genre comfortable with means rather than ends, and the twaddle of post-relationship analysis. As adults, though, we’re less interested in appearances, alert to the nuances of shrinking possibilities, and grownup emotions are McVie’s specialty. Her talent blurs the line between gratitude and rue. As a woman who’s been burned, she’s wary of passion, so when she surrenders we feel a special thrill even when we want to protect her. In song after song on Fleetwood Mac and Rumours — “Over My Head”, “Oh Daddy”, “You Make Lovin’ Fun” — McVie reminds me of what Anthony Miccio said about her: “It’s like seeing your stressed-out but faithful and kind friend find somebody who treats them right.” Listen to the joy as she sings the title line in “You Make Loving Fun” while the song fades. It’s surprising, it’s all encompassing, it’s earned.
There’s joy in Tusk alright; a curdled joy, remembrances of joy past. If the apocrypha is true — McVie, divorced from husband John, had shacked up with former Beach Boy Dennis Wilson — then neither adventure satisfied McVie, and, given the fact that we’re talking about Wilson and John McVie, she’s lucky her lovers could last an hour (“Never Make Me Cry” and “Over and Over” evoke the bleary wine-soaked despair of “Holocaust”-era Big Star). Because we expect normality from McVie, producer-guitarist Buckingham lavishes special attention on her songs until his filigrees coax their conventional skeletons into novel shapes. When she chooses to rock on “Think About Me”, for example, there’s a note of hysteria, startling but welcome, like a lover experimenting with a new position.
That’s Buckingham’s game on Tusk: he gussies up McVie’s tunes in the same way that Douglas Sirk imposed so many distancing devices and subtext on visual kitsch; it leaves us a bit unsettled. We may not recognize the person at first, but the transformation isn’t such that we doubt she’s incapable of it. The one member in Fleetwood Mac who sounds like a real person becomes the most natural conveyor of Buckingham’s vision. He and McVie toy with our expectations from the start, albeit mildly — like the decision to lead with a McVie ballad instead of a Buckingham rocker. Superficially, “Over and Over” isn’t much different from “Warm Ways” or “Songbird”: another in-the-pocket groove, with special thanks to Mick Fleetwood’s drum flourish at the four-minute mark; a mournful synthesizer pokes its head from beneath the twinkle of Buckingham’s acoustic and electric guitars; and a lyric that verges on incoherence, with McVie refusing to negotiate the differences. Her desolate vocals sound like she intends the title to stand for romantic masochism instead of an ode to or demand for great sex. Not that incoherence couldn’t signify on its own, but the song’s languid pace pushes her into a contemplative state we’re not used to hearing from this most sensual of singers.
Let’s return to the sequencing, which on Tusk matters even more aesthetically than on Rumours. If the songs on the latter were supposed to be “conversations” between the errant lovers in the band, then on Tusk the conversations have dissipated into arguments by people tired of repeating themselves. The sequencing plays tricks with our understanding of the intraband melodrama: with Stevie Nicks edging closer to a leather and lacy self-regard, as if she’s on vacation in Emerald City, McVie sounds like she wants in on Buckingham. His “The Ledge”, a demented sequel to “Go Your Own Way”, follows “Over and Over”. McVie’s “Never Forget” is a return to the husky-voiced lust of “Say You Love Me”, but it succeeds the title track “Tusk”, whose chorus is, of course, “Don’t say that you love me”.
Although Nicks’s “Sara” gets the most radical production treatment, “Think About Me” is the unlikeliest of things: a McVie rocker. Anchored by her electric piano, Buckingham’s fuzzed-up “Day Tripper”-esque riff, and the most sarcastic lyrics of McVie’s career (“I don’t hold you down / Maybe that’s why you’re around” — yay, Christine!), “Think About Me” accepts the gauntlet thrown down by “The Ledge”. Through guitars that sound like they’re screeching through several layers of mud and silt, McVie gets to play make-believe with Nicks’s top hat and onstage twirling. It makes perfect sense that while Gang of Four and Wire scored no American hits in 1980, “Think About Me” peaked in the top 20: a near-perfect punk number that snuck in below the radar. Jukeboxes across the land probably had copies of the single version, which is even faster and treblier (now found on the 2002 compilation The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac).
When reviewing Tusk for my college newspaper in 1997 at the height of Dance-mania, I complained that Buckingham “dulls McVie’s warm tenor” on “Brown Eyes” — a deliberately contrarian point of view. What’s clear now is that “Brown Eyes” and its companion track “Never Make Me Cry” are the album’s emotional centerpieces. In the relentless snare taps on the former, and the processed liquidity of the guitars on the latter, sarcasm and recriminations dissolve; the music swells and contracts, a pulse suspended between hemorrhage and arrest. Together the tracks are McVie’s “Sara”, but she’s drowning in a sea of love whose waters taste bitter, and she can’t decide whether to pretend otherwise. This is the sound of loneliness, again colored by the intimations of mature sexuality in McVie’s sobbed vocals. She can’t distinguish being undersexed from emotional rescue, which is why the unpleasant echo with which Buckingham sheathes her voice in “Never Make Me Cry” devastates. She’s hearing her own words thrown back at her, as taunts.
By comparison, the rest of her tenure in the Mac was lying in bed eating strawberries while hubby’s at work. Traces of Buckingham’s work lingered in McVie’s post-Tusk recordings, although the ever-shiner surfaces began to obscure their increasing irrelevance. She coasted on the memories of a grand passion, but rarely convinces that her new ones are worth sharing, or even measure up. Still, she rarely sang or wrote badly. “Boringly” was another story. 1982’s Mirage has “Hold Me”, one of Fleetwood Mac’s biggest hits, and probably the apogee of Buckingham’s production approach. The thing is ear candy, a sweet tart of chewy goodness filled with tinkling pianos, more fantastic McVie-Buckingham harmonizing, and what sounds like 87 guitar parts crisscrossing over the coda. The ballad “Only Over You” needs to be heard once, a total drip of a number whose title cobbles bits from earlier songs and whose chorus has the line “I’m out of my mind”, which is truer than she realized.
Recorded when the band was barely functional, Tango in the Night sounds like an alternate-universe version of 1987. When it works it is tinsel done right. Drum machines are all over the place, sure, but synthesized chimes double the guitars, and the music-box arrangements on “You and I (Part Two)” and “Everywhere” predate Bjork’s Vespertine by 15 years. Looking past two Nicks numbers that sound like she’s singing through a fourth, invisible nostril, “Little Lies” and “Everywhere” mean the most to anyone born after 1970. As the last example of an interesting collaboration in McVie World, “Little Lies” embeds a message as old as popular music itself in an arrangement whose electronic arabesques and expert use of space conjure a yearning that’s toughened by a realistic-not-cynical awareness of how even relationships need useful fictions (and the Nicks harmony in the chorus is the shrewdest hook of McVie’s career).
But in 1979 McVie didn’t stop thinking about tomorrow, although maybe Buckingham did (the next seven years would mean increased dependence on his studio wizardry to save neglible tunes). I interpret Tusk‘s last song as McVie bidding farewell to the high ship of peak-period Fleetwood Mac, and, it’s true, the band conjures a rather sunny, almost pastoral mood on “Never Forget”. As the morning sun shines into a recording studio stuffy with the smoke of last night’s cigarettes and arguments, McVie allows her voice to express the optismism she’d suppressed for 19 songs. Since this is an adult, though, she tempers the optimism with realism. “Just remember love is cold” — a reminder, not a realization. While Buckingham’s acoustic subsumes the nominal percussion, and Nicks’s harmonies shade McVie as craftily as they’ll do eight years later on “Little Lies”, McVie sounds buoyed by the support, a sweet little lie that she’s willing to disguise.