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 Tusk, Rumours. 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: