The album “Fleetwood Mac,” known among fans as “The White Album,” includes two of Stevie Nicks’ songs that eventually came to represent the band’s era, one characterized by uncertainty and change as the band relocated from England to California and began to amass commercial success. In “Landslide,” written while Nicks admired the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, stripped-back acoustic guitar backs Nicks’ plaintive questioning: “What is love? / Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? / Can I handle the seasons of my life?” The song is contemplative, but in signature Stevie Nicks style, it equivocates—this time, between clinging to the past (“Well, I’ve been afraid of changing”) and trying to embrace change (“I’m getting older, too”).
“Rhiannon,” the second popular track from the album, is “about an old Welsh witch,” as Nicks famously prefaces the song in its music video. Based loosely on the story of a Welsh goddess, “Rhiannon” channels Nicks’ well-known obsession with the occult—but more generally, the song is about a woman who can’t be controlled, a “woman taken by the wind.” As guitars ascend on a minor scale, then descend again, there’s a constant, sonic swell and deflation, a rising and falling energy. In live versions of the song, Nicks delivered high-powered, knockout vocal performances, almost too passionate for comfort. “Her Rhiannon in those days was like an exorcism,” Mick Fleetwood said in a VH1 documentary.
As band members continued to flirt, fight, and fall in love, tensions within the group rose more than ever. By 1977, two couples—John and Christine McVie, as well as Buckingham and Nicks—had separated, and even Fleetwood was in the process of divorcing his wife. Coupled with this turmoil, there was a particular pressure to produce a stellar follow-up to the “White Album,” which drove members of the band to abuse drugs and alcohol.
But out of all this anxiety came the band’s most famous album to date: “Rumours,” released in 1977, stayed at the top of the Billboard Hot 200 for 31 weeks and went on to win a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1978. Its stand-out tracks provided a voyeuristic view of the interpersonal drama unfolding backstage. From Buckingham and Nicks’ earlier career as a duo, “I Don’t Wanna Know” proves that ignorance is bliss, a sarcastic end to a torrid affair: “I don’t wanna stand ‘tween you and love, honey, / I just want you to feel fine.” The love affair between Buckingham and Nicks served as the source material for the iconic songs on “Rumours.” “Go Your Own Way” was Lindsey Buckingham’s angsty, drum-heavy account of his quickly devolving relationship with Nicks, who wrote “Dreams,” her own, ethereal version of events in ten minutes with only a few chords. The tracks diverge tonally, but chart the same frustration. “If I could / Baby, I’d give you my world, / How can I / When you won’t take it from me?” Buckingham complains, while Nicks offers self-reflection and redemption, singing, “When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know.” Redemption was a recurring theme for Nicks, who struggled with addiction, first to cocaine, and then to Klonopin. In “Gold Dust Woman,” penned and sung by Nicks, she warns herself of the tragic downfall that befalls a “pale shadow of a woman”: “Take your silver spoon, dig your grave.”
There’s not much optimism to be found on “Rumours,” with the exception of Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop,” the most cheerful breakup song in music history. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, / Don't stop, it’ll soon be here,” Buckingham and McVie sing in the chorus. “It’ll be here better than before / Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” Its message was so compelling that President Bill Clinton used it as the theme of his 1992 presidential campaign, even convincing the then-disbanded members to reunite for a performance.
The discography of Fleetwood Mac, a prolific band, long extends beyond “Rumours.” It includes “Tusk,” “Mirage,” and “Tango in the Night,” which feature quintessential hits like “Gypsy,” “Little Lies,” and “Everywhere.” Band members pursued solo projects outside of Fleetwood Mac, too—namely, Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” on her album, “Bella Donna.” Yet something about the 1977 album resonates above the rest. Despite its release dating back 40-ish years, “Rumours” manages to sound new with every listen, its lyricism idiosyncratic enough to eschew cliché, yet general and humanly true enough to be universal. It’s a voyeuristic look at the heart of Fleetwood Mac, the story of their numerous entanglements: a fortuitous and complicated meeting of musical styles and love stories. It’s the music, which is simple and somehow always fresh, but it’s also their glamorous ’70s California style, their history of break-ups and make-ups, the melodrama and the forces that kept them together. As they sing in “The Chain”—symbolically, the only song that credits all five members—“I can still hear you saying, / You would never break the chain.”
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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