For my money, this is the best double album of 1979, though it’s unfortunately overlooked because, while it does feature experimentation through other genres, it’s nowhere near the level that made London Calling so appealing, nor does it relate on a personal level that so many people flock to The Wall for. It also has the misfortune as being the most expensive rock album ever made at that point (over a million dollars!). Relative to its budget, the profits meant that Tusk was a commercial failure. And unlike the Clash or Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac have a lot of rather silly criticisms going against them—too 70’s, too soft, too Southern Californian, too feminine (the male songwriter has both a girl’s name and a girl’s voice)—whatever.
Despite the fact that a pop/rock band with no pretensions of being anything else but a pop/rock band ought to have no business making double albums, Tusk feels like the logical progression in their discography. I mean, how else do you follow a classic album likeRumours than by upping the ambition, and how else do you make said ambition tangible than by making a double album? That being said, like most double albums, any criticisms that Tusk is too long are entire justified, and again, like most double albums, I wouldn’t have Tuskany other way. And if we take the most canonized double album as a comparison point, like The Beatles [White Album], we don’t (or at least, I don’t, since I’m apparently one of the very few people who would call this the best double album of 1979) love Tusk because of its quantity—which is too easy of a thing—but rather, because of the quality found within its quantity.
Most people will know Fleetwood Mac for its female songwriters; Stevie Nicks had given the band its most sexual hit (“Rhiannon”) forFleetwood Mac, and later, their only #1 hit in the US (“Dreams”). She has a bigger role this time around than she did Rumours, handing in five songs of her own, but unfortunately, without the in-band turmoil to draw from that fueled the latter song, she regresses to mostly by-the-number balladry. Well, except for a couple of them. “Sara” is an obvious standout, quite honestly, the only track that sounds like it could’ve been written for either of their preceding albums (to borrowRollingStone’s Stephen Holden’s description, the only track that demonstrates the “streamlined homogeneity of “Dreams,” “You Make Loving Fun” or “Go Your Own Way””). There’s also “Sisters of the Moon,” and I can’t help think that, despite the fact that she’s credited as the sole songwriter for either song, both are indebted to Lindsey Buckingham, who probably directed the harmonies upon harmonies in the second half of the former and the electric (seriously literally and figuratively) guitar that commands the entire half of the latter. Meanwhile, Christine McVie is all too happy writing the same song over and over again, and her grasp of melody isn’t nearly as strong as it once was, barring one “Think About Me.” Though thankfully, nothing here is ever on the same level as the last side of The Wall.
Tusk however, is a statement. Not of the high (and low) of cocaine or of the band’s ambition, but rather, of Lindsey Buckingham as one of the greatest singer/songwriters of the 70’s. I had originally thought the shoutout to him in the album’s notes was a little too ego-stroking, but honestly, it’s quite well-deserved. He’s apparently the only member of the band that was aware of music outside of the band’s own. He takes the new wave keyboards and throws them on “Not That Funny,” and he takes the punk energy and throws it on the band’s acoustic template for the less-than-two-minute ditty, “That’s Enough For Me,” yelling “YEAH! YEAH!” infectiously. He deliberately c-h-h-o-o-p-p-s his voice for the hook of “What Makes You Think You’re The One” and relies on a primitive, squelchy tone for “The Ledge” (oh, and speaking of primitive, check out the plinky old piano used for the glissando for “What Makes You Think”‘s finale). His voice never sounded nearly as vulnerable as it does in front of the jangly guitar of “Save A Place For Me.” Meanwhile, “That’s All for Everyone” is probably the best example of psychedelic harmonies since the Beach Boys. Hell, even the most normal song Buckingham hands in, “Walk A Thin Line,” has a melody that’ll bounce in your head afterwards.
And then there’s the title track. I’m not quite sure what possessed Lindsey Buckingham to pick this as the lead single, because it seems a little too experimental to be enjoyed by the same crowd who loved “Go Your Own Way.” That being said, it impressively still managed to climb to #8 on the U.S. charts. Now, a handful of songs on Rumours, despite tackling topics such as affairs (which, make no mistake, are the opposite of fair. They’re more like unffairs) was still sunny-sounding (for lack of a better adjective). “Tusk” is the complete opposite, one of the more depressing songs I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t force its depression down your throat, though. You can barely make out Buckingham’s whispered vocals, but they revolve around the same subject matter (at least, I think so anyway, with lines like “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on / Why don’t you tell me who’s on the phone” and “Don’t say that you love me / Just tell me that you want me”). The random yodeled interjections sound like they take cues from There’s a Riot Goin’ On (another great example of a depressing album that doesn’t seem depressing). And despite the song placing you in the middle of a stadium while the USC Trojan Marching Band are doing their thing (seriously, this song probably cost half the album’s budget), it still feels like you’re alone in the end. Even Buckingham can’t finish his final thought, “Don’t tell me that you–“, deliberately cutting off into a primal drum freakout. Though of course, “Tusk” is slang for penis, which the band knew full well, so it might not be about anything at all. But that new slice of information does make the shouts of “Tusk!” a lot funnier, don’t it?
Finally, an obvious difference that separates Tusk from the rest of Fleetwood Mac’s discography in the 70’s is that you can’t call this soft rock. Mick Fleetwood is by no means the most innovative drummer of the 70’s, but he pounds his way through songs like “What Makes You Think You’re The One” and “Not That Funny” so deliberately that you might as well call it hard rock (not really, but you get the point).
Yeah, screw my original sweeping declaration. I’ll make a bigger one: this is the best album of 1979.
PS: and at least the cover isn’t as wacky as the one on Fleetwood Macor Rumours.