Fleetwood Mac Tusk cropped album cover

Fleetwood Mac Tusk: From shining platinum to dull ivory

Fleetwood Mac Tusk (1979)WHITE ELEPHANT is more like it, heffalumping into the thick four-sided forest, stomping on moby grapes, swatting at the metaphysical graffiti carved into the tree trunks. Tusk isn’t exactly a swingin’ safari, and who is the walrus?

Not Lindsey Buckingham, that’s for sure. This character, who wrote all of two good songs on Rumours (and one on the LP before that), has composed a healthy 45% share of this double-disked set, and not a “Go Your Own Way” in the portfolio. And the vixenish Stevie Nicks, her voice fairly ravaged into a not-unaffecting Wynette whine, is still spinning her mystic crystal revelations into melodies that sound like fruit suspended in Jell-O. Fleetwood and the male McV are, as befitting a tag-team that has been together since the Profumo scandal, the mainspring that keeps the mammal on time for his appointments, but rhythm sections are like Roscoe Karns and Zasu Pitts: you wouldn’t co-star them in History Is Made At Night. But Christine McVie, ah…here is rock’s only Bronte heroine.

See, Fleetwood Mac are not dumb. At long last lucky, maybe – if their former guitarists weren’t quite so flighty, they might be playing ‘Dust My Albatross’ for the 4,308th time at Klooks Kleek this very night, instead of having a uranium album on the U.S. pop charts – but not dumb. So they have wisely opened and closed Tusk with C. McV songs, “Over & Over” and “Never Forget,” bracketing the album in sexual mystery, coastal harmony, true-life adult oozemusic that is infused, like many of Christine’s contributions over the years (“Show Me A Smile,” “Spare Me A Little Of Your Love,” “Prove Your Love,” “Say You Love Me,” “Remember Me,” and Tusk‘s “Think About Me,” to name but a half dozen) with a warmth, uncertainty (check those titles) and vulnerability. Without Christine as the fulcrum between the British good-humored pragmatism and California helium-headonism of the group, things might well fall to pieces. How appropriate that she’s been consorting with a Beach Boy.

So much for mash notes. Tusk is dominated by interlopers, and it’s there that the weight must lie. On the credit side, a pat on the back to Lindsey Buckingham (assuming that his “special thanks” are basically for production duties) for getting so distinctive a sound for the LP: the instruments have true definition, there are edges where there should be edges, curves where there should be curves, and side four, especially, rolls like a scenic stretch of Abbey Road.

Unfortunately, Buckingham doesn’t sing all that well (the mix notes this, and camouflages as best it can), and most of his songs are Barthelme-dull sketches buried in thump and clangor. Exceptions: the ethereal “Walk A Thin Line,” the almost-rock “I Know I’m Not Wrong” (if only that harmonica, or whatever it is, weren’t playing “toast and marmalade for tea”…), the staggering “Tusk,” which explodes the mold and comes up a cross between T. Rex and John Philip Sousa. As for Ms. Nicks, she has her moments of sparkle – I’d keep “Storms” on a one-disk distillation of Tusk, plus the piano pattern on “Beautiful Child,” the way she sings “When you build your house, I’ll come by,” on “Sara,” and that might be all – but her meandering trance-tunes like “Sisters Of The Moon” have become a drag.

With its sparse, digitally-balanced ambience, artsy-obscuro graphics and diffused creativity, Tusk takes on the characteristics of a kind of blissed-out image risk (though not a commercial one); a real late-60’s move of an act following a freak mass-appeal success with an ambitious foray. In the past, The Mac have made minor, eccentric albums – Penguin, Future Games – that were noticed by perhaps 25,000 people. Tusk isn’t particularly impressive as a 20-song compendium, and it has its perverse touches, and it will be noticed by millions. Trouble is, the sprawling format makes even more obvious the fact that Fleetwood Mac is at least three different bands, led by three miniaturists of varying talent: one a fragmentary rock-technician; one a sexily swirling mistress of misty dreams; one a very human, thoughtful singer-composer as scared as most of us are of the impermanence of intimacy. Guess which one has been signed to do a film and a solo album. Hint: get the fog machines ready.

© Mitchell Cohen / Creem / January 1980

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