Fleetwood Mac Say You Will

Fleetwood Mac: An epochal band in its twilight years

Fleetwood Mac Say You Will (2003)Just hours after the release date of the new Fleetwood Mac album was announced, I was summoned to London’s leading talk radio station, LBC, to comment on this important piece of breaking news. The presenters, both seasoned news reporters, made no effort to conceal their excitement. Was it true that the “classic” line-up was back together again? Did that mean the new album would sound like Rumours? Tell us again about the good-bad old days of the Mac — the feuds, the drugs, the squillions of records sold, the money squandered, the sheer, glorious, wanton excess of it all.

We should all know better by now, and yet a part of me is just as eager as my radio show hosts were to discover what developments lie in store as the latest chapter in this unseemly, yet strangely gripping saga begins. If you have been able to follow the Byzantine twists and turns in the plots so far — the disappearances, sackings, resignations, bust-ups, stand-ins, solo albums, reconciliations and all the rest — you are probably something to do with the group. But it isn’t the blow-by-blow detail which matters now so much as finding out what happens next.

People miss an important point when they dismiss old troopers like Fleetwood Mac as mere peddlers of nostalgia with no contemporary relevance. All great pop acts have a powerful narrative thread running through their activities and there are any number of them — from The Rolling Stones to Ozzy Ozbourne — whose scriptwriters are now tantalizingly close to revealing what happens in the end. Go and see Paul McCartney on his current tour and of course it’s a nostalgia trip, but you also get to find out what eventually happened to all those Beatles songs and, for that matter, what became of the teenagers who screamed themselves hoarse in the black and white newsreels of the 1960s. But beware; exposure to such knowledge at close quarters is not necessarily for the faint-hearted.

Unseemly, yet strangely gripping

Listen to Say You Will and you hear the sound of a group which 25 years after its finest hour, is still riven by dissent and disharmony while staffed by individuals who know that they will never make music apart to rival the music they can still, sometimes, make together. We know it too. Indeed, Say You Will, began life as the fourth Lindsey Buckingham solo album when the guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer was made painfully aware that his record company — like the rest of the world — had little interest in it as a solo offering.

Having buried the hatchet with his former paramour Stevie Nicks and re-tooled the same songs as part of a Fleetwood Mac album, Buckingham finds himself playing a starring role in a different story. Nine of the 18 compositions are his, while the other nine (not that anyone’s counting, of course) are written and sung by Nicks. Glueing these elements together, over the course of a 76-minute marathon, is the redoubtable rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bass player John McVie.

The velvet-voiced Christine McVie has “finally” dropped out of the picture, so it is not in fact the “classic” line-up, despite a lot of group and record company spin to suggest that it is. Even so, Say You Will, represents something of a renaissance in the band’s artistic fortunes, if not quite the return to Rumours-era form that has been suggested.

Fleetwood Mac Say You Will
(Neil Preston)

Buckingham, ever the most experimental member of the outfit, takes his brief to new extremes on several strange and surprisingly powerful excursions into heavy, prog-rock territory. “Murrow Turning over in His Grave” is a fire and brimstone protest song: “Would you feel the ooze as your brain drains out/From the pneumatic drills and sharpened knives?/Blood in the sky/Are you dead or alive?” And on a gothic-rock extravaganza called “Come” he piles into a long, squealing guitar solo while Fleetwood Mac’s snare drum explodes like a fusillade of cannon shots.

But however far out on a limb Buckingham takes them, Nicks is always on hand to guide the group gently but firmly back to it core, soft-rock sound. Her willowly, siren voice rises above the acoustic riffing of “Illume” — a dark if predictably vague response to 9/11 — and brings a worldly-wisdom to bear on the bittersweet lovers’ tale of “Thrown Down.” “I am older now, but I still remember,” she sings on “Smile at You,” her weathered tone soaring over a wall of ghostly, wailing harmonies.

The album ends with two farewell songs — first Buckingham’s “Say Goodbye” and then Nicks’s “Goodbye Baby,” the eternal rivals divvying up the honours as meticulously as children claiming their fair share of going-home gifts at the end of the party. “There’s blood and guts and disagreements still to this day,” Fleetwood said recently, “But that’s what makes it mean a shit.” And so another of rock’s epochal groups enters its twilight years with a renewed mixture of pragmatism and passion which may come as a surprise to even their most ardent fans.

David Sinclair / Word (Issue 4) / June 2003

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