With Fleetwood Mac's Tusk recently turning 30, PopMatters offers some reflection on the too-often-overlooked Mac classic. In the first piece, Alfred Soto explores Tusk as the apex of the work of singer and keyboardist Christine McVie.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.