Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 4: Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

Welcome to My Back Pages, a new collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

This week, we are taking a look at Fleetwood Mac's legendary, radio-approved 1977 LP,
Rumours, which is currently back in heavy rotation thanks to a recent 35th anniversary reissue. So check the replies for our thoughts and a full Rdio stream of the record, and feel free to jump in with any comments, anecdotes, or discussion questions you may have.

Craig Manning: I must confess that, even though we’ve done three weeks of these features now, and I strongly like and respect each album we’ve covered, we have yet to hit upon one that I consider an all-time favorite. Looking back at Rain Dogs, War, and Tim, it’s easy for me to instantly distinguish my favorite songs from each, along with a few I don’t care for much out of context. But with this week’s album, Fleetwood Mac’s career-defining, stratospherically popular 1977 magnus-opus Rumours, we’ve at last come upon an LP that I could put on repeat for days and still be reveling in just how much I love it. I’ve often said that Born to Run is the only legitimately “perfect” album I’ve ever heard, but it’s hard to look at the tracklist for Rumours and find a flaw. This record is stacked, a wall-to-wall slate of pop bliss, timeless rock ‘n’ roll, and internal tension that sounds as fresh now, I’m sure, as the day it was released. I can’t pick a favorite song from Rumours because every time I push play, it’s a new song defining that particular listening experience. There are no specific highlights on this record; they’re all highlights.

Last week, in my review of Josh Ritter’s latest release, I talked briefly about the mythical status of the break-up album, how artists who have previously seemed larger-than-life tear down the walls between themselves and their audiences with these displays of universal human emotion and instantly humanize themselves in the process. And Rumours might be the granddaddy of all break-up records. In the Fleetwood Mac lineage, Rumours is the band’s eleventh proper album, but in reality, it’s more like their sophomore effort. Major players Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks came on board for the 1975 reboot that was Fleetwood Mac, helping the band towards major singles like “Rhiannon” and “Landslide,” and forever re-defining their sound. But while the self-titled record helped to get Fleetwood Mac back into the good graces of their label, the members themselves were moving into a period of personal turmoil. Looking back, it’s almost remarkable how many things hit at once: the six-year relationship between Buckingham and Nicks began to fracture, John and Christine McVie dissolved their eight-year marriage, and Mick Fleetwood discovered that his wife had been cheating on him...with his best friend, no less. But rather than calling it a day and breaking up the band, the members channeled their relationship woes and emotional strain into song, and damn, I’m glad they did.

Where we have largely come to expect raw, spontaneous performances from a break-up record, to further emphasize the emotion of the subject matter, Rumours is honed and pristine. Meticulously recorded, re-recorded, and produced, Rumours is a pop album through and through. These songs were meant for the radio waves as much as they were meant for the human heart, but remarkably, the studio sheen robs them of none of their power. “Second Hand News” gallops out of the gate, Buckingham reveling in a limitless landscape of his newfound, post-relationship opportunities, and then Nicks fires right back with the dusky “Dreams.” “But listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness, like a heartbeat drives you mad/In the stillness of remembering what you had and what you lost,” Nicks sings on what remains the band’s sole number one hit. It’s a handsome smash, to be sure, and one of the album’s best songs. Rain tumbles from the sky on the immortal chorus, gorgeous and wistful harmonies buoying the arrangement alone, but the driving force is Nicks, whose conviction lands between haunting nostalgia and defensive resignation. How do you sever a relationship with someone who you still have to see every day? Rumours poses that question, among many others.

But while Nicks may get the album’s biggest hit, Buckingham proves to be Rumours’ dominating force, at least for the duration of its first side. “Never Going Back Again” shows off the songwriter’s indelible guitar skills, and he sings Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop”—another ubiquitous classic—like a new man. The song, an anthem for the power of optimism, was probably the first or second Fleetwood Mac tune I ever heard, and certainly the first from Rumours. Both in and out of context, I still think it’s one of the weakest numbers here, though the sing-along bop of the chorus is an earworm if there ever was one. But it’s almost hard to believe such a sunny, forward-looking song comes from the heart of an album so mired in heartbreak and resentment. In my early years, as I was just beginning to discover the roots of folk music and classic rock, I found the song shallow, if catchy. On Rumours though, with the force of the album surrounding it, “Don’t Stop” gains some serious electricity: it’s the heart of the storm.

But the storm breaks hard and heartache and resentment come flooding back to the forefront as the album charges into its unparalleled mid-section. “Go Your Own Way” is another one of the album’s pillars, and Buckingham’s finest contribution here. An opening dialogue of acoustic and electric guitars gives way to the arena-scraping chorus, and Mick Fleetwood beats the drums like a man possessed, but it’s the tension between the lyrical content and the chorus harmonies—provided by Nicks—that makes the song one of the greatest break-up anthems of all time. Because Buckingham is so clearly singing about Nicks, taking shots at her, even—“Tell me why everything turned around/Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do,” he sings in the second verse—that having her actually sing the song with him turns it into a nail-biter. Legend has it that, during the making of Rumours, the two divided couples would only come together when the music demanded it. The McVies weren’t on speaking terms, and the arguments between Buckingham and Nicks saw no end until the studio tech pushed record. “Go Your Own Way,” though, is Buckingham bringing the argument into song, where his ex can’t refute him or fight back, and it’s both wicked and brilliant.

Christine McVie’s “Songbird” closes out Rumours’ first half, and it’s the most sobering moment on the record. A Spartan piano ballad, “Songbird” is lonely and revealing, but also tender and gorgeously melodic. Flip the record over, and it’s the one-two punch of “The Chain” and “You Make Loving Fun” that completes the hat-trick middle segment. The former is the only song on the record for which each band member gets a songwriting credit, and the partnership radiates in the mesh of vocal harmonies, sung partially in a round, that give the song its burning intensity. The latter is the album’s most deliriously catchy composition, another McVie number with a sugary chorus and a funky, synth-driven dance beat. But while Rumours has its fair share of hooks, it ends instead on a haunting note, first with McVie’s “Oh Daddy” and then with Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman.” The latter is an ode to the destructive force of cocaine, and it’s an almost ritualistic end to an otherwise fairly straightforward pop record. “Did she make you cry, make you break down, shatter your illusions of love?” Nicks asks, over an eerie array of folk instrumentation. “And is it over now? Do you know how to pick up the pieces and go home?”

But perhaps the greatest thing about Rumours is how instantly accessible it is. Some albums and artists need time to breathe before you can really love them. This one hit me on first listen, and has never let go. It’s relatively lean, clocking in at just under 40 minutes, and every trace of filler or fat has been methodically burned away. Even the album’s weakest moment—the Nicks-penned “I Don’t Want to Know”—has its place, providing the necessary bridge between the sweet rush of “You Make Loving Fun” and the crushing darkness of the final two tracks. Out of the entire Rolling Stone 500, where it sits stately and preserved at number 25, it’s likely my third favorite record—behind the twin Springsteen classics Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. The balance between different voices, songwriters, moods, emotions, and even genres—McVie relies more on pop sensibility, while Nicks and Buckingham were clearly birthed from the hippy rock culture of the 1960s—not to mention the faultless sequencing of the disc, makes for a listen that never drags or grows repetitious. And of course, the theme, the break-up album conceit, the personal turmoil the band poured into these songs back in 1977, it all ties the whole thing together.

What’s interesting to me is that the influence of Rumours can’t be traced quite as clearly as some of the other albums we’ve been discussing in here. We talked extensively about how The Replacements did a lot to forge the scene this website belongs to, and we still see tons of U2 imitators—along with new Dylans, new Springsteens, and all manner of other emulators or pretenders—but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone classify a band as “the new Fleetwood Mac” in quite some time...if ever. The break-up album ideal is still very much alive and well, and sometimes artists even borrow its structure. I would argue that Adele’s 21 was made very much in the tradition of Rumours, and its commercial success and Grammy haul mirror those that Fleetwood Mac experienced following the release of this record. But it’s rare now that we see a band with as much teamwork mentality as these ladies and gentlemen exhibited in the late-70s.

However, Rumours remains very much embedded in the pop culture consciousness. These songs still play on the radio waves—a few summers ago, I think I heard “Go Your Own Way” three times in one afternoon of work—and the album’s legacy lives on. I’ve heard a dozen different covers of “Dreams,” cropping up on b-sides collections or in live shows, over the past two years alone. And hell, Rumours remains the only standalone album to ever constitute its own theme week on Glee, something that many left-of-the-mainstream music listeners might shrug off, but still a significant milestone for a show—and for a wider music industry—which now relies more on the rush of a three-and-a-half minute single than it does on a cohesive collection of tracks. For me though, the album sales, the ubiquitous singles, the hallowed legacy in music history, and the continued modern presence are ultimately superfluous: for me, Rumours is like an old friend. And if someone asked me for three albums with which to start delving into older music, I’d put this one on the list without thinking twice, sandwiched between Born to Run and The Beatles’ Abbey Road.

Chris Collum: The last three records have all been ones for which Craig and I share some degree of fondness. However, for some reason I have never been very into Fleetwood Mac, and while Rumours is a really cool album, it has never been a record I've returned to consistently. It's full of instantly accessible pop jams, but for some reason, nothing has ever stuck with me that much. I know the story behind the album concerning Buckingham and Nicks, and while it makes for an interesting listen, Rumours has still never exactly thrilled me--maybe it just isn't my cup of tea.

I think a large part of why I don't return to this record, however is exactly what Craig alluded to in his piece: its influence isn't easily discernible. I tend to be the type of music-listener that discovers older music by discovering what artists influenced his favorite artists, so for one reason or another, this record has never been on my radar as much as other classics of similar stature. Maybe, however the issue is that pop music that has been influenced by Rumours is so ubiquitous that I don't even realize how influential the album actually is. Maybe I'm taking Rumours for granted.

One way or another, this is definitely an album that I need to re-visit several times more, so I suppose this week I fall into the role of discoverer alongside our readers. I'm sure there's something I must be missing.

Craig Manning: Bummed you don't dig this one much Chris. You could have told me before I wrote a novel! In any case, I hope you and our readers will give this a few plays today so we can have a conversation below. Also, those who enjoyed the piece or who dig Fleetwood Mac should head over to Made of Chalk this Thursday, where other Chris (cshadows) will be rhapsodizing about the (almost) equally great follow-up to Rumours, the double-album that is Tusk.

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