THE LONG-AWAITED double album upon which Warner Brothers has been banking its recently sagging fortunes will probably enrich the corporate coffers, but it will never sell the 15 million copies Rumours sold back in 1976. Tusk has not received the fanfare accorded to Fleetwood Mac's two previous albums--maybe because it's not as good, maybe because Fleetwood Mac is by now a known quantity, maybe because they're rapidly becoming passe.
Fleetwood Mac has often been called "the group of the '70s," and, listening to Tusk, it's not hard to see why. The songs, as usual, deal with personal themes of lost love and regained love; the group never opts for even the slightest bit of political or social commentary. While the forces of punk and disco explore the fringes of rock, Fleetwood Mac contentedly drifts with rock's mainstream. And it has paid off: phenomenal sales, constantly sold-out concerts, and almost universal acclaim by critics who never quite latched onto new wave.
But as the '70s fade, so may Fleetwood Mac. For the most part, Tusk continues the tradition of the predictable Fleetwood Mac song--strong, throbbing percussion, acoustic guitar, and lyrics often unintelligable and always accompanied by lots of "oooh-waahs" or "sha-la-las". True, there is some experimentation with different musical styles--"That's Enough for Me" sounds like an Appalachian hoedown with its folk banjo and "Yeah, yeah, y'alls" while "Not That Funny" is somewhat new wave with its synthesizer solos--but nearly all the cuts seem forced to fit into Fleetwood Mac's formulaic style. Tusk is from the same mold as Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, the other albums recorded by the present members of the group (John McVie, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks). One wonders why it took three years to produce, even if it is a double.
Buckingham is, without doubt, the group's central figure and the moving force behind its latest effort. He wrote many of the songs on Tusk and is the lead singer in most of them. Buckingham's melodies best fit the Fleetwood Mac mold, with painfully banal lyrics such as: "You can love your brother but you can't walk out/someone ought to tell you what it's really all about." "That's all for everyone/that's all for me/I just need someone to satisfy me."
Far more interesting are the female vocalist tracks. Fleetwood Mac has always been at its best in the slow, seductive songs of Stevie Nicks and the more assertive but somehow also more despairing ones by Christine McVie. Between the two a certain tension exists which keeps the group from sinking totally into the morass of '70s pop. Nicks plays the Looking for Mr. Goodbar-waif, on her eternal cruise for romantic fulfillment, while McVie acts The Unmarried Woman, imagining herself to be above love but actually despairing over her lack of it.
But it's not that simple, Nicks, though passionate, is also remarkably lucid and even-tempered; McVie, though aggressive, is also reserved and aloof. McVie constantly harps on helpless love ("So go and do what you want/I know that you're happy/don't worry baby, I'll be all right/you'll never make me cry) while Nicks is the tidal wave of passion ready to strike the helpless drowner ("Every night you do not come/your softness fades away/did I ever really care that much/is there anything left to say?).
Lyrics have always been less important to Fleetwood Mac than strong melodies and close harmonies. The subject matter of their songs is nearly always the disappointments of love. On Tusk these disappointments are explored in even greater detail than they were in Rumours; virtually every cut deals with lovers leaving or leaving one's lover. Only the final song on the album. "Never Forget," relieves the pervasive gloom; in this otherwise typical song, love finally triumphs: "Come on baby now don't you be cold/just remember that love is gold/could we ever forget tonight?"
IT IS A SHAME that the title song of Tusk, buried as the second to last song on the album, has been the one getting the most radio play. A strong percussion solo (performed by the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band) punctuated by shrieks of "Don't say that you love me," it gives an entirely wrong impression of the rest of the album. Listening only to this song, one would think that Fleetwood Mac is finally experimenting with less formulaic, more outrageous and chaotic forms of rock. In fact, Tusk is probably the most tightly polished album the group's yet produced. That's the problem.