Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fleetwood Mac's “Tusk” — a deliberate act of crazy defiance (New York Times Magazine Article)

Letter of Recommendation: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’
By Sam Anderson
The New York Times Magazine

Photo Norman Seeff
There is a species of spider that hunts by releasing chemicals that imitate the sex pheromones of moths. When its prey arrives, high on fantasies of romance, the spider hits it with a sticky blob of web, then devours it. Scientists call this “aggressive mimicry.”

This is something like the operating principle behind Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 album “Tusk.” The trap is set with the first track: a lite-rock masterpiece, in roughly the tempo of a summer nap, called “Over & Over.” The singer’s voice is smooth and sad, a melon-flavored wine cooler on a vacant beach at sunset with the one you know will eventually leave you. The keening cheese-ball lyrics (“all you have to do is speak out my name, and I will come running”) are so generic as to be almost meaningless, and these words float on top of a clean acoustic strum, which is punctuated neatly by a clean snare, which is colored in turn by the very clean jangles of an undistorted electric guitar.

It is, in other words, quintessential Fleetwood Mac: classic FM-radio easy listening — an absolute top-shelf lighter-swaying anthem. Not a note is out of place. (This may be the spot to mention that the birth name of the song’s lead vocalist, Christine McVie, is actually Christine Perfect.) The band’s three-voiced choir is in full-on angel-harmony mode — “Oooooooooooo a-ooo-ooo-OOO-ooo-oooooooooooo” — and as the refrain drones on (“over and over, over and over, over and over”) you can feel your pulse beginning to slow, and you step through the bead curtains into the dim back room of your consciousness, where the lava lamp still blorbles and the ylang-ylang incense burns and you can bathe forever in the radiant black light of the perpetual 1970s.

As Tusk’s opening song, “Over & Over” functions as a thesis statement: No matter how messy life gets — with its affairs and screaming matches and drunken blackouts and cocaine frenzies and ludicrous escapades, like that one time (true story) when a decadent German LSD cult corrupted the lead guitarist — in the end we are all going to be safe, forever, in the Crystal Palace of Soft Rock.

This is, of course, a lie. The Crystal Palace of Soft Rock will save no one. It is a beautiful but fragile structure, unfit to shelter us from even life’s most minor assaults, let alone the really serious dirt clods and cannonballs and stinger missiles associated with marriage, parenthood, age and death. The Crystal Palace of Soft Rock will crumble. It is good for nothing. Do not trust it. What makes “Tusk” a great album — not just a pop relic of the late ’70s but an artwork that continues to speak to contemporary, sentient humans — is how quickly and ruthlessly it exposes this lie.

It happens on the very next song. “Over & Over” fades out on a liquid guitar solo (we can rock, Fleetwood Mac will have you know, but we’re not going to burden you with too much of it), and into the vacancy steps a song called “The Ledge.” As in, a thing to fall off. And this is exactly what the album suddenly does. Fleetwood Mac shoves the glimmering Crystal Palace of Soft Rock — and along with it, the band’s whole multiplatinum, radio-friendly sound — directly off a steep and treacherous cliff, at the bottom of which it crashes into 32,000 jagged pieces. “The Ledge” is a noisy, bouncing fuzz-monster that makes no kind of sense in the universe of mainstream ’70s radio pop. The band’s signature vocals are buried in the mix, roughed up, uglified; there are chants, whispers, moans and shouts. It sounds as if it were recorded live on a whaling ship in heavy seas. You can practically hear the record executives shrieking in the background. It ends not with a gentle fade-out but with a kind of goat-bleat from Stevie Nicks, followed by some gratuitous drum patter.

“Tusk” was Fleetwood Mac’s follow-up to the 1977 megahit “Rumours,” the exquisitely engineered soft-rock juggernaut that went platinum 20 times over, spent 31 weeks at No. 1 and made Fleetwood Mac the world’s biggest band, the very definition of commercial rock. Everyone (including most of the band itself) was expecting the next album to be “Rumours II”: 40 more lucrative minutes of “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams” and “Don’t Stop” and “You Make Loving Fun.”

Instead, they got “Tusk” — a deliberate act of crazy defiance. Everything about the album is ridiculous, from its length (20 songs, 72 minutes) to its sleeve art (a visual distillation of the precise moment at which the 1970s turned into the 1980s) to its title (the word “tusk,” among the band’s male members, was slang for the male member; when Stevie Nicks heard that this would be the album’s title, she threatened to quit the band).

The hero (or villain) of “Tusk,” the organizing intelligence behind everything, was Lindsey Buckingham. He was less the band’s guitarist than a one-man band whose instruments happened to include all of his bandmates. Some of the songs were recorded in Buckingham’s home studio, where he had a setup that allowed him to play drums while sitting on the toilet. His obsessiveness during the recording alienated everyone. All of the non-Buckinghams sat around idly, inhaling hillocks of cocaine, losing track of time, while Buckingham futzed around with tape speeds and lay on the ground singing countless takes of backing vocals into a microphone taped to the floor. (He thought this would create a more “aggressive” sound.) Famously, the band rented Dodger Stadium and employed the 120-piece U.S.C. marching band to record the title track — an infectious riff that Buckingham distilled into a three-minute oddity so strange it seemed to actively sabotage any chance the song might have had to become a breakout hit.

“Tusk” cost more than $1 million to make — the most expensive record ever, at the time — and took 13 months to record. The result was a double LP, almost twice as long as “Rumours,” that produced zero No. 1 hits. It was as uncommercial as an essentially commercial enterprise could ever make itself sound. (Despite this, the single versions of “Tusk” and “Sara” did manage to crack the Top 10.)

This is the defiant heroism of “Tusk.” “Rumours” is one of the most immaculate products in the history of American pop — every song a potential hit, every moment airtight. “Tusk,” by contrast, is full of air; the songs are swollen with atmosphere. It contains many of Fleetwood Mac’s greatest nonsingles (“What Makes You Think You’re the One,” “Save Me a Place,” “Storms,” “That’s All for Everyone”), as well as some of the most powerful transmissions ever received from the astral plane occupied by Stevie Nicks. (“Beautiful Child,” in particular, will haunt you all the way to the terminal buttons of your neurons.) The defining tension of “Tusk” is perfection versus destruction, gloss versus mess — the lure of soft rock versus the barb of art rock. It is where obsessive artistic control circles around into raggedness, where chaos and order dance together in a cloud of whirling scarves. The album probably has five too many songs, and a handful of tracks are two minutes too long, but that’s the cost of this kind of genius: excess, bombast, hubris, getting carried away.

A version of this article appears in print on February 22, 2015, on page MM74 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’.

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