I’m a Fleetwood Mac fan, so it’s been said. But while that’s accurate, it isn’t 100% true. What I really am is a Stevie Nicks fan. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Stevie-less versions of Fleetwood Mac, but they don’t inspire the passion and allegiance that I have for the band when she’s in it. Obviously, there was about 8 years of Fleetwood Mac before they’d even heard of Buckingham or Nicks, the group having gone through a half-dozen or so lineup changes as various members drifted into drug-induced withdrawal, religion-induced disappearance, alcoholism, sleeping with the drummer’s wife, and so forth.
That band, in its various lineups, put out plenty of great music, but I think it’s generally agreed (except perhaps by strident blues purists) that the peak lineup of Fleetwood Mac was the one that coalesced in 1975: Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie, Stevie Nicks. Not that they haven’t had plenty of contortions since then. There was the no-Lindsey version. There was the no-Lindsey and no-Stevie version. Then after a brief Clinton-induced classic lineup reunion, there was about 17 years of the no-Christine version. That version did a lot of touring, but not a lot of recording. Aside from the 2003 album Say You Will (which, at 18 songs, is like a double album at least), the only other studio work from that incarnation was the 2013 EP Extended Play, which called itself a Fleetwood Mac album but in my opinion should have been billed more like “Lindsey Buckingham and Friends”. Buckingham wrote 3 of the EP’s 4 songs, and that fourth one was a re-recording of a 1973 Buckingham Nicks demo — more like half a Stevie song, since although she wrote it, she shared lead vocals with Lindsey.
Then, in 2014, Christine shockingly rejoined the band, and toured extensively with them, multiple legs of an “On With The Show” tour. It seemed like the classic Mac was finally back, but… Stevie had put her solo career on hold for ages for that tour, and was itching to promote her own work. So while four-fifths of Fleetwood Mac was eager to record fresh material, Stevie was not up for it.
The result is Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie. Given all of the band’s lineup changes, this group has just as much right to call itself Fleetwood Mac as the Say You Will incarnation. The fact that they didn’t is quite telling of how important Stevie Nicks has become to the Fleetwood Mac brand. Instead, although Mick and John play on every track of this collection, it’s billed as a duet album, rather like a bookend to the phenomenal 1973 pre-Mac Buckingham Nicks record.
Knowing this up front, I was quite excited for this album. Stevie is on a level by herself for me, but I absolutely love Christine, and some of her past vocal collaborations with Lindsey (“World Turning”, “Don’t Stop”) have been stellar. I appreciate Lindsey as a fine songwriter, an exceptional guitarist, and a gifted producer. Mind you, I also know him to be egomaniacal, controlling, and (if multiple biographical accounts as well as his own oblique admissions are to be believed) occasionally abusive. That tempers my appreciation of his work, but all the same I loved Buckingham Nicks, and I liked Say You Will quite a bit, so a melding of the two with Christine in Stevie’s place is sure to be a winner with me, right?
Well, sort of. It’s an enjoyable album, there’s no doubt about it. There’s said to be some effect from being in a group, that the members challenge each other and pull each other out of comfort zones to everyone’s benefit. You’ve got your Lennon/McCartney, your Jagger/Richards, and your Buckingham/McVie/Nicks. Some of the benefit of that triad lingers even with Stevie removed — compared to their most recent solo work, Christine sounds more energized and exciting here, and Lindsey sounds more grounded, spending more energy on putting his songs over than on wowing us with his virtuosic picking skills.
But while the album is called Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie, that billing is accurate but not quite true. The overall impression, for me, is of Lindsey overwhelming the album and stifling any sense of group dynamic. Certainly on his five songs, I don’t hear Christine at all. They could pass for solo album tracks, and for all I know that’s what they are, just repurposed for this project. It wouldn’t be the first time — in fact most studio Fleetwood Mac albums since 1987 have that pedigree, at least the ones produced by Lindsey.
Christine’s songs, on the other hand, have Lindsey all over them. In fact, several of them sound like they’re going to be Lindsey songs until her voice kicks in. What’s more, a few actually recapitulate old material of Lindsey’s. “Red Sun” begins with a drumbeat identical to that from Say You Will‘s “What’s The World Coming To?”. The “Too Far Gone” riff is a slightly scrambled and sped-up version of the one from “Wrong”, a Lindsey solo track from 1992. And “Carnival Begin” starts out sounding like it’s going to echo “I’m So Afraid” from the 1975 self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, and when the solo starts it veers back in that direction again.
What they all have in common is that they are guitar songs. The sound of Christine’s piano and keyboards is a fundamental part of the magic from the first four “classic lineup” Fleetwood Mac albums — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage — but it’s very hard to find here. That’s what makes “Game Of Pretend” such a breath of fresh air. It’s the only song with a prominent piano sound, and it’s beautiful. Even in this song, Lindsey eventually shows up with a choir of himself — multitracked processed layers of his own vocals accompanying Christine on the chorus — but nevertheless it’s the one song on the album that feels like it really belongs to Christine, and probably as a result, it’s my favorite.
There’s a song on this album called “On With The Show”, and probably intentionally, its guitar part calls back quite clearly to a song called “You And I, Part II” from the 1987 Fleetwood Mac album Tango In The Night. Looking back, I can see how that album marked a turning point for Fleetwood Mac aurally. Buckingham had produced the previous albums, but his production tended to bring out and enhance the other players. Tango is different — it ensconces the others in a full-on Lindsey show, fantastic ear candy but much more about the production than the singers, the songs, or the playing (except of course for the guitar playing.) The subsequent Buckingham-produced Mac studio albums have followed suit.
For the longest time, I ascribed Tango‘s sound to the 80s, and explained away the subsequent albums as due to the absence of Christine. But with this album I can see the stranglehold that Lindsey Buckingham has on the sound of this band for the past three decades. The only one who’s been able to successfully escape it is Stevie Nicks, and only then by completely removing herself from the band and recording with other producers like John Shanks, Sheryl Crow, and Dave Stewart.
“On With The Show” sounds like it intends to be a statement of solidarity from Lindsey. “As long as I stand / I will take your hand / I will stand with my band”, he says. But after listening to this album on repeat, I couldn’t stop wishing that he spent more time standing with the band and less time standing on them.