Tusk is an essential part of what I call the Instant Vinyl Record Collection, because you can find reasonably-priced, clean copies of this double album in practically any used bin. Its predecessor, Rumours (1977), was an unprecedented commercial hit (selling over ten million copies)—and, moreover, wasn’t simply just a collection of well-written pop songs polished to perfection in the studio; it defined, like few other records, the laid-back romantic confessions of late-seventies California rock. Understandably, Fleetwood Mac were under immense pressure to release a follow up.
Lindsey Buckingham, the band’s guitarist and resident megalomaniac, was determined that not only should Tusk not live up to expectations; it shouldn’t even try. He wanted to imitate the punk and new-wave bands that were invading the LA music scene. For Tusk, he used the finest, most expensive studios to painstakingly make the majority of his songs sound as if they were being played on pawn-shop musical instruments and sang in a register that pushed the top of his vocal range.
After the opening track, “Over and Over,” at the time what you’d likely expect to hear on the follow up to Rumours, you encounter the first of Buckingham’s mad-scientist creations, “The Ledge,” which reveals that, in his mind, what punk and new-wave bands were doing was a revved-up version of fifties rock. Which wasn’t too far off the mark, actually. But Buckingham was too much of a seasoned studio pro to be able to play this music with the requisite attitude. So, he resorted to recording tricks, such as speeding up guitar tracks, wrote stripped-down chord progressions, and came up with song titles that flaunt a passive-aggressive response to someone who can play mind games as well as he can—maybe even better: “What Makes You Think You’re the One,” “Not That Funny,” “That’s Enough for Me,” and, most tellingly, “I Know I’m Not Wrong.” These songs and this sound stick out on every album side, and any number of listeners who had grooved to Rumours probably then decided that they’d had enough of Tusk.
But you can file Tusk under Artistic Success, because, while it’s indeed fun to hear a band go completely off the rails while burning studio time, it’s more rewarding to hear songs from writers at the peak of their craft, and, in this regard, they surpass Rumours. Singer Stevie Nicks previously took a reflective look into the abyss; on “Sara,” the gem on the first side of Tusk, she dives to the bottom of the sea. Although “Sara” has rather cryptic lyrics, “But now it’s gone/It doesn’t matter what for,” there’s no mistake about feeling that you took the dive with her.
It’s at this point that the shards emerge from the breakups—the marriage of keyboardist Christine and bassist John McVie, the relationship between Buckingham and Nicks—that occurred while making Rumours. On “Brown Eyes,” Christine McVie asks with a chilling forthrightness, “Are you just another liar/Will you take me all the way?” Here her vision of love is as dark as anything on Warren Zevon’s early records (on which the majority of Fleetwood Mac performed as backing musicians); she sings the “Sha-la-la” chorus like the haunting memory of a doomed affair.
Nicks and Christine McVie together hold their own against Buckingham’s wounded-male egoism. Nicks turns in the hardest-rocking cut, “Sisters of the Moon.” McVie’s “Never Make Me Cry” is the toughest, yet retains a touching compassion.
And, once Buckingham calms down, he too writes the best songs of his career. The hypnotic beauty of “That’s All for Everyone” is a memorable homage to Brian Wilson, the damaged genius of the Beach Boys. Dropping all pretenses, Buckingham sings what he feels, “I call for everyone/I cry for more.” He also invents a supremely catchy hook for “Walk a Thin Line,” the fourth-side highlight.
Buckingham, however, had even greater ambitions that would contribute to the record’s being the first to run up over a million dollars in production costs. He instigated the recording of the title track in Dodgers stadium with the U.S.C. Marching Band. What amounts to an extended blues-rock riff over a tribal beat is hard to figure. Perhaps the song is coked-out mysticism (the band’s consumption of the drug was legendary) joined with a dirty joke: “Tusk” being a reference to cock.
The title track and cover art have a conceptual blankness that is reminiscent of Talking Heads, Fear of Music. But Fleetwood Mac’s use of this artistic gambit is rather clumsy when compared to David Byrne and company, who seem to have it coded in their DNA.
While Tusk was an all-in gamble on moving Fleetwood Mac forward, its fate couldn’t help but to serve as a footnote to the cultural touchstone that Rumours became. That may have been for the best in the long run, because Tusk became an album that was gradually rediscovered. It’s not coincidental that, in indie-rock circles, Tusk is a guiding light—its reckless exploration didn’t just break all of the rules; it invented new ones.
I find that often it can be more interesting to listen to flawed masterpieces than actual ones. Tusk is one of 1979’s more perverse musical achievements: an attempt to copy bands such as Talking Heads, and coming up with something else entirely.
Background information: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/21924-tusk/