The Rumours Are True: Fleetwood Mac Does the Impossible
Let's pull back the curtain a little bit here. I write several different types of pieces for this site - essays on music consumption and/or appreciation, traditional reviews of albums and songs, profiles and opinions on bands, etc. But my favorite ones to write are the ones that give the site its name: Re-Critic pieces. These are articles where I attempt to point out how prevailing trends or opinions have been subsumed, exacerbated, superseded, or simply changed over time in a way that can serve to challenge the contextual framework around a piece of music. Now, that's a general and vague thing, but it is that way on purpose - it makes it pretty easy to put things under such a wide umbrella, thereby providing a kind of job security for me, your lowly music opinionator. Usually when I put on this hat, the express goal is to point out how opinions about something were misguided or incorrect in a way that can be explained, or even explained away. This time, we're going to go a little bit against that grain. Fleetwood Mac's eleventh (!) LP, Rumours, has always been a Classic Album, and has basically always been regarded as such. I have no dispute with that widely-held belief, and no judge or jury in America would ever find in favor of someone arguing against it. The thing that I believe makes it remarkable is the reasoning behind it.
While we're pulling back curtains, a brief word on three separate and independent occurrences that compelled me to tackle this subject:
1) Somehow, while swirling around in a YouTube thinkpiece vortex, I managed to watch two video essays that both dealt with different aspects of Rumours. I highly recommend them both if you want to delve in further: Nerdwriter's breakdown of how FM write songs is genius, and Polyphonic's discussion of "The Chain" presents a lot of great material, some of which I'll touch on below. Again though, great videos, both of them, and definitely worth your time since you're on the Internet right now anyway.
2) After having revisited the album in the wake of watching the above-mentioned vids, my little brother and I were talking while he was in the process of opening some packages from his subscription to Vinyl Me, Please (shameless attempt at funding: VMP, please sponsor me!). As he opened the packaging of their recent St. Vincent exclusive, he was delighted to find that they had packed in a copy of Rumours - VMP randomly puts little surprises in packages all the time, because they are cool like that. We talked about how amazing that album is and, not for the first time, bonded over our shared love of a Classic.
3) The third thing is…well, I work in a record store part-time. While that fact will probably not surprise anyone who has ever read my work, it does occasionally provide glimpses into the musical lives of others in a way that staying insulated in my apartment simply can't. For that, and the fact that I get to be surrounded by music and music-lovers, it's a great way to spend my time. I am often the person that answers the phone…sorry, I need to say something here: calling a record store to see if they have something in-stock is antithetical to the record store experience. If you are looking for something, then look for it. Come down, check things out. If we don't have what you're looking for, maybe it's an excuse (or a sign) to try something else, or a reason to get outside your comfort zone and take a risk on something you've never heard. Unless you want to make sure we're open for business, there's almost no acceptable reason to call. (Sigh, rant over.) ANYWAY, I had the phone one day and a customer called to ask if we had Rumours on vinyl. I almost reflexively just said "Of course we do," and hung up, but I decided to go and look to make sure. Here's the thing: Rumours is standard issue, it is an album that has sold in the tens of millions between various pressings and nearly any record store in the world will have a copy, if not several, at any given time. I have always just taken this as a fact, based on my copious experience with record shopping. But, friends, I'm here to tell you that our store did not have a copy of Rumours on that day. Flabbergasted, I talked to one of our used vinyl experts and related to him my feeling that we, and every other store, always has copies of it and he said essentially that what I was saying was correct, but that copies went out the door just as quickly as they came in. Even 40-odd years later, this torchbearer of 70's Rock is something that is in demand in a big way.
None of these instances on its own is outlandish, but with all these oddly specific things happening in the span of about a month, I felt that the coincidences amounted to the Universe telling me to throw my hat in the ring on this album and dissect it a bit, or at least the feelings surrounding it.
The story of Rumours is one that exists as much within the realm of legend as it does documented fact. Since it's been done to death over the decades, I'll just give the broad strokes here: From '68 to '75, Fleetwood Mac recorded and released ten albums, a dizzying stretch of prolificness by any measure. By 1975, personal strife had entered the equation in ways that would break most bands apart: the McVies had recently divorced, Mick Fleetwood's marriage was on rocky footing, and the on-again-off-again Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks could only do two things successfully, write songs and argue with each other. All this led to an environment that would have been unbelievably tense while writing and recording. But the band had seen real commercial success with their self-titled tenth record and their need to follow their artistic vision to new heights (creatively and financially) overshadowed the personal grievances. While there are albums that have been recorded by band members who have grown apart or never liked each other to begin with, this is arguably the most successful album ever created by a band that had been through such profound love and loss, mostly with the very same people they were working with to create it. It is in many ways the quintessential "break-up album", but it's a "break-up album" where you are always hearing all sides of the story - both the jilted lover and the partner whose priorities have outgrown the relationship, both the good-timin' woman and the two-timin' man.
Against this backdrop, one would expect an album full of downers. It just makes sense that a band in this position who could still manage to be in the same room with each other would inevitably come up with slow-building, minor-key melodies featuring vocals that were wistful and yearning. In another era, what I'm describing might be categorized as "sad-bastard music". But that is emphatically not what Rumours is. Rumours is largely a master class in sunny, West Coast pop-rock. It's bolstered by some of the bounciest basslines the 70's ever produced, the vocal melodies and harmonies stand up as some of the best ones this side of the Brian Wilson brain trust, Lindsey Buckingham sings with his trademark manic tenor that could be read as anger or ecstatic hope depending on the listener's own mood, and Nicks and Christine McVie deliver sublime counterpoints to each other and to the rest of the band throughout. While there are, understandably, some somber moments here that we'll talk about, this is largely a fun album. And herein lies the genesis of Rumours' undisputed Classic status.
We can probably look back from our vantage point and reasonably say it was simply a given that Fleetwood Mac would create a great album at this moment in their history. They had a solid foundation even though a few personnel changes shook things up, and their artistry really couldn't be denied by this point in their careers. It's easy to see, in retrospect, that some level of greatness was forthcoming, the evidence for it is just too plentiful to ignore. The unexpected thing is that they would make an album that was not only good, but a good time. "Secondhand News" is a rollicking "bow-now-now"-fest that kicks the album off on a note of good-natured enjoyment, but what does he mean when he says "I won't miss you when you go"? Sounds kind of harsh, right? "Don't Stop" reads on paper as a fever-dream blast of optimism, assuring the listener that things will be "better than before" - it's not until you realize what the "before" refers to that doubt begins to creep in about which they're being inspired by here: is it the brilliance of an imagined "tomorrow", or the relative badness from "before"? Elsewhere, "You Make Loving Fun" is exactly what it sounds like, an ode to someone who makes the narrator feel wonderful simply by being in love with them…but who is McVie writing about? Her ex-husband, AKA John McVie, AKA the bass player? Is it a remembrance of when they first fell in love? Or is it about someone new? The genius of these fun-sounding songs is that they all create more questions than they answer. The expectation may have been for the songs to not be fun at all, but Team Fleetwood subverts that by creating songs that are actually fun and can easily find their way to radio play even when they are taking jabs at themselves and each other in the lyrics. As a case in point, "Go Your Own Way" sounds like an empowering journey of motivational self-discovery before you realize it's perhaps the greatest Top-40 kiss-off in the modern era.
Contrasted with the surface-level fun and upbeat chicanery of these songs, the album's more slow-paced and introspective numbers only serve to highlight the dynamics of the LP. In that context, "Songbird" is a sweet comedown moment that ends Side 1 with an intimate piano-driven ballad. "Never Going Back Again" is merely a pit stop of troubadouring between the cataclysmic world-building of "Dreams" and the unrelenting chug of "Don't Stop". While the melancholic moments are present and accounted-for, they are only here to show other sides of the band, to prove that they can write affecting, and effective, songs that are simple and elegiac without always having to rock out. Taking the album as a whole, there is no more sad-bastarding here than one might find on Rubber Soul or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
But there is another matter to address about this lineup of songs, one that might be a little off-putting for the faint of heart even though it has been espoused before by much greater minds than mine. The songs here aren't uniformly great, at least not in an obvious way. To be clear, there are great things about nearly every song here, that much is true. Much of this can be credited to shining production work which was the band's own but also included the input of engineers Richard Dashut and Ken Caillat. Throughout Rumours, the sheer amount of life and space present in the playing and singing comes right through to the tape, making for a truly magical listening experience from a technical and aural standpoint. But peel back the layers on "Secondhand News" and you might find that it's a pretty underwhelming track, especially considering its vaunted position as the album opener. "Don't Stop" is catchy, but contains more than its fair share of triteness, even for its time - think the musical equivalent of a "Hang In There, Kitty" poster. "I Don't Want To Know" is OK, but it's exactly that: just OK, and more forgettable than not. If I were to create a Rumours playlist that neglected it entirely and pass it off as the album, I doubt many people beyond hardcore Fleetwood Mac lifers would even notice its absence. In fairness and to give massive credit where it's due, I should point out that a few of the band's best-ever songs can be found here: "Dreams", "The Chain", and "Gold Dust Woman" are all great songs that show the band at the absolute peak of their powers and have deservedly stood the test of time. In one sense, with songs this great it matters less that the quality of others might be a little lacking.
One could think that I'm damaging my thesis here by pointing out the inability of some songs to stack up pound-for-pound, but hold onto your butts because I'm about to use this point to my advantage in shoring up my underlying argument. Near the beginning of this discussion, about 1800 words ago (wow, time flies, huh?), I offered that Rumours is undeniably a great album, but that its greatness was less remarkable than the reasons for why it was great - I think that the same can be true on a song-by-song basis as well. The album is a great one, not because of its songs, but because of the fact that FM could make these songs at this time in their history. They didn't do what could have been considered to be "expected", but rose well above that limiting construct to craft anthems for the ages. This Herculean feat was accomplished by leaning on their abilities as artists and by knowing what outside advice to take or discard, which shows a fundamental trust - a trust that each member had in themselves and one that they shared as a unit. Even with everything falling down, with every bridge becoming a wall, every smile having long ago turned to tears, they still trusted enough in each other that they not only weathered the storm, but came out of it a stronger band than they had ever been before. They largely played out their drama inside their songs and sought therapy from commiseration even though they were on opposite sides in several different theaters of emotional war - each band member was on an island of their own making, but their ability to create beautiful music was a way to cross the oceanic separation. And, crucially, they recognized that it only worked if they were all together. While over the years the individual members have recorded on their own, or factions of the band have broken off to do things with others, there is nothing that sounds like this band when they're at full strength. Rumours was and still is the purest incarnation of that strength, a strength only attainable through shared experience and the specific camaraderie that only comes from good times gone bad.
Rumours is an album that by all rights should not exist in the way we know it. That it exists at all is a minor miracle; that it has been so successful and is still a part of active listening and discourse nearly half a century later is a major one. The reasons we love it are the same reasons we love any piece of art that works: it lays bare a version of emotional truth. The truth in this case is that of a group of people who were exhausted from several years of non-stop recording and touring but somehow able to see the Promised Land, who were at odds with each other in profound ways that affected their individual self-respect, but who ultimately transcended all of that and gifted an album to us that is great despite its flaws and happy despite its sadness. As far as albums that exist in spite of their circumstances go, it's a masterpiece; as a document of a band in time, it's legendary. A group of supremely talented musicians who went their own way…together.