oaaa_fleetwoodmac4
Via superseventies.com

There’s no denying Fleetwood Mac is having a resurgence. I’m not really sure what started my friends and I talking about Fleetwood Mac so frequently — the karaoke addiction (see here and here) probably had something to do with it — but their recent tour solidified my theory that they were reemerging in the public consciousness. A tribute album came out recently, with newer indie bands like Tame Impala, The Kills and MGMT covering their music. If the mid 2000s were all about The Boss, with The Arcade Fire and The Killers channeling Springsteen to varying degrees of success, the Mac is clearly in the early 2010s ether for some reason.

This resurgence is especially odd considering I grew up, as did many other indie rock fans, in a time when Fleetwood Mac was generally disregarded as lame dad, presidential campaign rock. But the band’s music has a wealth of emotion to it that wasn’t acceptable in the irony-rich ’90s, and their sonic experimentation is being appreciated more, which shows in the music of bands like Fleet Foxes. It would be interesting to see if I have kids one day and they feel the same way about, say, Nirvana, if they long for that kind of grittiness and earnest authenticity I mostly roll my eyes at now.

In a recent interview, rocker Kurt Vile described his new album Wakin on a Pretty Daze as “totally our Tusk” because it was recorded in California after hours of sessions. Strangely, I found that quote not looking up Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 album Tusk, which I’ve been listening to constantly lately and which I wanted to write about, but looking up Kurt Vile, because I was thinking about how Wakin on a Pretty Daze, one of my favorite albums this year, is not like Tusk. Like Tusk, it is long, but unlike Tusk, it is coherent and cohesive. It is the work of a single songwriter and represents one specific time in only his life and evolution as a songwriter.

Tusk deserves to be categorized with just a few other albums in rock history: The Beatles’ White Album, Sandinista by The Clash, and maybe also Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. These are huge, sprawling albums that show bands simultaneously at the peak of their talent but also at the point in their careers where they clearly can’t be a band for very much longer.

Tusk is great if you, like me, are going through a big Fleetwood Mac phase but get tired every now and then of the series of big hits that is the album previous to TuskRumours. But where Rumours is a beautiful opera about different band members breaking up with one another, Tusk is an insane, genre-spanning collection of songs that showcase the band members doing whatever they want.

Vile described his album as “our Tusk, but no cheese.” Yet the cheese is essential to Tusk, just as “Don’t Pass Me By” is necessary to the White Album, “Hitsville U.K.” had to go on Sandinista, and the Speakerboxxx/Love Below experience is not complete unless you sit through “Where Are My Panties.”

The album begins slowly, with “Over & Over” trudging along, and that song is followed by a complete change of pace, literally. I have never had cocaine, a drug that supposedly influenced Fleetwood Mac considerably, but Tusk’s second track, “The Ledge” sounds exactly like having way too much coffee on an empty stomach feels. Even though punk already existed when Tusk came out, “The Ledge” reminds me of the scene in the biopic satire “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” in which country star John C. Reilly does a bunch of cocaine and accidentally invents punk rock. (Dialogue NSFW)

The climax of the album, “Tusk,” is the craziest part, though: lyrically, it is a pretty typical Fleetwood Mac song, with lyrics about paranoia and jealousy like “Why don’t you tell me who was on the phone?” Only those lyrics are sort of whispered in a conspiratorial tone, and most of the chorus is, inexplicably, just a tribal-sounding, repeated shout of the word “tusk.” Here is a YouTube video of it, for which the embedding has been disabled.

Tusk is nuts, but it is also generous. Why don’t we have albums like this, or the White Album – -these huge messes — anymore? (I also thought of The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, but it is also the work of one songwriter, despite that it is extremely genre-bendy and long and experimental). Hugely popular musicians don’t take risks like that these days. Justin Timberlake’s new album is long, but can you imagine if it also had a country hoedown in the middle of it, or a song called “Sisters of the Moon?” It would never happen, but how great would that be? And although we’re in an exciting new era for the music industry, where independent labels are doing a lot of great things, artists like Tame Impala just don’t have the hubris of a band that had just made Rumours and demanded only pink hotel rooms with pianos in them. Let’s hope that gap is bridged soon, because I think we could all use more of this:

  • Arts & Ideas JCCSF

    Absolutely love that record. Steve’s “Sisters of the Moon” “Storms” “Sara” and “Beautiful Child” kill me every time. In my opinion, some of Stevie’s most underrated songs ever.

  • Music Fan

    Tusk is given way too much credit by music critics, and the quality comparison to the Beatles’ White Album is quite a stretch. Except for “Tusk,” all of Lindsey Buckingham’s songs on this album suck…and by suck, most of them sound skeletal and incomplete. However, some of Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks’ best songs are on Tusk, and that is what really saves the album, not Buckingham’s banging on pots and pans, which is just plain annoying, not revolutionary. McVie and Nicks were at their creative peak. Buckingham didn’t reach his creative peak until the late ’90s and early 2000s, when both his music and songwriting elevated. Just because something is “different” doesn’t necessarily make it good, which seems to be the standard argument from critics who want to be perceived as good music writers.

    • Atomiklust86

      Bitch, please.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    I’m old enough to remember this album’s release. I can’t imagine any record company allowing their biggest selling act to do something like this now. It’s not a “commercial” album. The two previous albums were full of hits (although some of the best music is on the rest of those albums…I also like the hits so don’t misunderstand me). Tusk is decidedly not a rehash of what they had just done. Who could get away with that now and a double album on top of that? The album seems to be going extinct. Now that we download music, the labels aren’t bothering mostly. So where are songwriters going to experiment if they can’t produce 12 tracks and let the radio stations and fans decide what they want to hear as the next single. Record companies have ruined popular music. There’s nothing left but tired rehashes of music that wasn’t original either. It’s been going on for decades now and it’s very sad. Tusk is a great album. not Fleetwood Mac’s best (in my opinion anyway) but a necessary step for them to break free of expectations and make the music they want. And like the White Album, three members of the band are doing a dry run for their later solo projects. That was a necessary and healthy move too for both bands. Fortunately for FM the split wasn’t permanent.

  • Richard spencer

    Two other possible contenders for this category are Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Works and Fragile by Yes. In both cases, each member contributes their own works and style – it’s sprawling, messy, and highly individualistic. Most of the sprawling albums occur near the end of a band’s career as the members go their own way in experimentation. In the case of Fragile, it is what launched Yes into worldwide recognition.

Author

Nate Waggoner

Nate Waggoner's writing has appeared on SFWeekly.com, thefanzine.com, and in Sparkle & Blink. He has read at KQED’s New Kids on the Block Litcrawl event, Quiet Lightning, Bang Out, 851, and Write Club SF. He and his ex-girlfriend host a podcast called “Invitation to Love,” which is available on iTunes. He is the author of a comic book called "A Lifetime of Free Haircuts." He is an MFA candidate in Fiction at San Francisco State University.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor