Monthly Archives: September 2016
My Spin on Masterworks: 14 of 25
Warner Bros, 1977
The alchemy behind pop music has always incited curiosity. Audiences are naturally interested to learn of the relationships and journeys (whether physical, technical, or spiritual) undertaken by their favourite artists during the creative process. Though the records themselves are unequivocally the bottom line, a new dimension of audience investment stems from the capacity to learn about the lives behind the productions. Greater understanding or appreciation of background details gives totemic albums a real-world grounding, rather than leaving them to exist in a relative vacuum.
Given the alarming rate at which it’s possible to gorge on music in the digital age, it can be all-too-easy to overlook the stories behind the sounds. On most streaming services, there’s very little information provided (occasionally save for a short, Spotify-esque bio) about the inner workings of the artist(s) at hand. Unless the music in question is overtly autobiographical, it’s at the discretion of the listeners to dig out the details for themselves. Even so, there are many examples of albums (and artists) for which no introduction is required, their backstories inseparable from the end result. Not only have the songs become familiar on a cultural level, the stories behind them are just as entertaining and enduring. One of the music industry’s most famous – and surely one of the longest-running – soap operas of the past fifty years belongs to Fleetwood Mac; a career in which music of lasting influence and significance has been countered by the headline-baiting internal strife of the group’s members.
Although hardly known for free-jazz explosions and abrasive U-turns, Fleetwood Mac’s catalogue is a varied one, fuelled by irregular line-up changes and responses to the ebbing phases of soft-rock from decade to decade. The only two members present throughout each of the band’s incarnations have been beanpole drummer Mick Fleetwood and blues-worshipping bassist John McVie – an appropriate circumstance, given that the band’s moniker was originally drawn from their surnames. Otherwise, the Fleetwood Mac brand has taken many different shapes down the years, from the early cycles spearheaded by Peter Green to the more nebulous arrangements of the early-70s and late-80s. The band’s history is sprawling, though across half a century, its richest years were unquestionably rooted in the mid-70s; an era which bore witness to Fleetwood Mac’s greatest recording achievements as well as their most tumultuous personal experiences.
No matter how individuals choose to measure the success of Fleetwood Mac’s different chapters, history will undoubtedly regard the band’s line-up of this time as the group’s definitive guise. Following the assimilation of melodic duo Buckingham Nicks into the team, and with McVie’s wife Christine a key player by this point, the five-piece were (and still are) the Fleetwood Mac, so embedded in the popular consciousness that the band’s other line-ups are barely regarded by casual listeners. The quintet has become iconic, and the melodic flowering of their output together resulted in unprecedented commercial and critical success, which reached a zenith in the wake of 1977’s magnificent Rumours.
Of course, the circumstances from which such greatness was borne were far from idyllic. The bolshy scraps of modern rock bands are child’s play when compared to the psychological turbulence of Fleetwood Mac’s members during the Rumours era. Brothers Gallagher and Followill might wax at length about simmering hostilities and the perils of throwing furniture, but the knotty personal battles of the five members were derived from serious emotional baggage, the recording of Rumours in particular resembling a headspinning mixture of entitled post-hippie hedonism and impossibly tangled romantic peaks and troughs.
After almost a year of touring Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous tenth record, John and Christine McVie divorced after six years of marriage, and the bitter fallout resulted in minimal contact between the two away from their recording duties. Likewise, the on-off relationship of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks reached intense levels of friction, while Fleetwood himself was knocked sideways by revelations of his own wife’s infidelity. Even turning up at the studio to record in each other’s company was a bitter feat, although Nicks has since claimed that the band contrarily worked best when at its members were most dysfunctional. On the (apparent) upside, being based in the relaxed region of California’s Sausalito, the group were able to readily seek better living through chemistry; the happy marriage of a sky-high recording budget from Warner Bros. and California’s booming cocaine scene clouding the recording sessions in a powdery fug.
This dizzying saga of highs and lows found a home in songwriting of barbed honesty; the soft-rock grace of Fleetwood Mac given hitherto unrivalled potency. Exorcising their demons in such close quarters to one another (never mind brazenly recording them for public consumption) sparked further fire from the performers. Writing duties were split track-for-track (the only song which was a wholehearted collaboration between all five members being ‘The Chain’), but the unfailing glimmer of the music kept these separate accounts in cohesion. There’s hurt and catharsis on all sides: Nicks’ ‘Dreams’ rides its sad refrains like rain washing down a windowpane, while Buckingham’s own writing became increasingly stormy. His spitting of the refrains “you can go your own way” and “never break the chain” are awfully caustic, yet the anthemic power of his delivery would ultimately help both songs become international earworms. Christine McVie attempted to balm her own distress in the album’s most tender cuts, and emerged with gems such as the stunning ‘Songbird’.
When poring over the lyric sheets, it’s clear that the cuts ran deep. The comedown of ‘Gold Dust Woman’ found Nicks (whose final vocal take was allegedly recorded at a red-eyed 4am) catching sight of herself in the mirror: a “pale shadow” in the wake of romantic disillusionment and hedonistic excess. Simultaneously, concealed within the song is a furious swipe at rock’s inescapable misogyny: the twisted politics that had groupies fawning over the rampant libidos of the Mac’s male division while scowling at their female companions for the same behaviour. Amid the musical lushness of ‘Gold Dust Woman’ and ‘Dreams’ (“players only love you when they’re playing”), Nicks smuggled small but righteous protests against slut-shaming into the fabric of a commercial smash.
And yet these stories are so much more than titillating gossip. Sure, the details were juicy enough to bait the music tabloids, but the emotions at the core of these lives were articulated with a lasting substance. Rumours isn’t a cheap glimpse into sordid scandals, but an intimate insight into real people and their real mistakes, all packaged among the strongest hooks imaginable. It’s astonishing to think that not only did Fleetwood Mac survive the making of Rumours, they entered a whole new era of success. It instilled huge confidence in the group that would go on to spur them to take more audacious stylistic risks, while drawing from their dysfunctional dynamic for inspiration from time to time. However, for all their intrigue, the likes of 1979’s Tusk and 1987’s poppy Tango in the Night don’t quite match the brittle authenticity of Rumours.
No conceivable Greatest Hits package could ever provide an introduction to a group with the same clout as Fleetwood Mac managed in this sole album. It’s the most accessible, dramatic and consistent work borne under the group’s title, each track an evergreen work of bewitchingly perfect songcraft. A curator could take any one of these songs out of sequence and glorify it as a gold-standard single, even down to the curios: the impeccable filigrees of ‘Never Going Back Again’, the goosebump-inducing insidiousness of ‘Oh Daddy’, the bouncy, sunlit funk of ‘You Make Loving Fun’. As a whole, it is peerless, even in a catalogue peppered with an assortment of pop riches that any modern group would kill for. Different listeners will find plenty to return to across the band’s discography, but the greatest writing, greatest legacy, and greatest stories belong to Rumours: an album as engaging on the page as it is gorgeous on the ears.
My Spin on Masterworks: 13 of 25
For a record that carries so much emotional weight, Blue can sound deceptively light and nimble to modern ears. Of course, there are plenty of unshowy artists in the modern fray; musicians and songwriters capable of approaching potentially stodgy topics such as love and heartbreak with grace and subtlety. Likewise, this isn’t a critique of artists of Adele’s stature, who manage to channel hurt with a bombast that can serve as a beacon for millions. Ultimately, no matter how they cut it, even the most restrained modern troubadour would struggle to rival the poise of Joni Mitchell’s early 1970s output; a sequence of records almost immaculate in its economy.
More than any other release in Mitchell’s extensive canon, Blue is an album of simplicity – and deceptive simplicity at that. Released in 1971 and holding an unwavering focus on the singer’s immediate history, the album’s autobiographical nature is clear from start to finish. Mitchell’s prior records are hardly artificial, but Blue saw her taking a huge step in bold and honest songwriting: the singer herself noted almost a decade later that Blue is an album stripped of defences, her lyrics transparent and barely a hint of fiction detectable. Mitchell pores over the harsh memories, her own emotional upheavals, and suggestions of broader disillusionment that coloured the tail-end of her experiences in the 1960s, allowing just the right amount of specificity to let these songs feel lived-in without being overwrought.
As such, Blue is a product of its time, but the use of now-outdated phrases (“wreck my stockings in some juke box jive”) are charming preservations of a scene, rather than holes in a would-be timelessness. And ultimately, Blue does sound timeless, due to Mitchell’s skilful articulation of painful ordeals, and for the honesty of her delivery. The setting is concrete and tangible, but the themes pack a universal clout, and the fact that the album’s power has continued to radiate for almost half a century is testament to Mitchell’s achievement. The familiar pairing of love and loss as subject matter has seldom sounded so frank as on Blue.
Rather than lay her troubles on the thick, Mitchell allows empty spaces to ring through the hollows in her music and verse. The warm and intimate ‘My Old Man’ is a remarkable composition which gracefully ties together the peaks and troughs of heartache, juxtaposing the sweetness of companionship with the sting of absence. Loneliness is articulated with a lightness of touch rather than fragile means or cracked sighs; the swirl of emotions kept in firm check without recourse to melodrama. It’s pulled off so deftly that the craft behind it is practically invisible, perhaps the most perfect example being Mitchell’s shift to a minor key as she sings “when he’s gone / me and the lonesome blues collide / the bed’s too big / the frying pan’s too wide”.
Blue is filled with such moments, where sorrow lingers quietly, rather than landing with devastating blows. The story behind ‘Little Green’ is painful enough to suggest an agonising frenzy of emotions, but it’s ground that Mitchell treads softly. In her early twenties, the singer was forced to give up her first child for adoption due to her impoverished circumstances, and in a song dating back to 1967, Mitchell allows her mind to wander to prospective futures, squeezing a kernel of hope for a “happy ending” for the daughter she barely knew. Her reveries are calm and quiet, but it’s with steady poise rather than a detached coolness that she composes herself, while touching on the unavoidable truth that “sometimes there’ll be sorrow” in a life she no longer within her influence. She envisages the future unfurling for her child, reflecting the full weight of the passing of years in a single line: “there’ll be icicles and birthday clothes”. It’s an emotional juggernaut executed gently.
To reduce the myriad qualities of Blue to a single mood or buzzword is reductive, as will always be the case for art in any medium. However, examining it broadly, what is consistently transmitted is a sense of lacking. Mitchell’s songs are transitional, looking forward as well as lamenting what has been left behind, in shifts that are occasionally represented as joyous, but are most often melancholy. Whether singing of soured relationships, her lost child, or the fade-out of 1960s idealism (“they won’t give peace a chance / that was just a dream some of us had”), Mitchell articulates the tension that comes from moving forward while struggling to process distressing experiences and bitter knowledge. ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ is a wrenching closer to the album; a glimpse into what could be an encounter between Mitchell and her ex-husband. As someone she once loved cruelly insists that all words are just “pretty lies”, the phrase lodges like a wound: the words are barely digestible to Mitchell, sung repeatedly as if in attempt to clarify their meaning. The final lyric of the album – “only a phase, these dark café days” – is tinged with equal dignity and despair.
The lyrics are met with comparatively straightforward compositions, wrung from modest tools. The busiest that Blue gets is the jittery folk stomp of ‘This Flight Tonight’, but for the most part, the album is unadorned by layers of instrumentation, keeping its roster to a select few. Melodies are clear and crisp to suit the candour of Mitchell’s writing, and for all its austerity, Blue retains a distinctive sound, thanks both to the brittle tone of the Appalachian dulcimer that reappears throughout the record, and the potency of Mitchell’s voice at its least crowded. ‘River’ swirls beautifully (its insistent piano line a mere hair’s breadth from ‘Jingle Bells’), performed with tenderness but isolated from the warmth that Mitchell observes on all sides: she’s surrounded by Christmas trees, decorated houses and glowing lights, but she doesn’t fit comfortably into the homely environs. ‘Blue’ itself is a quiet tour-de-force that highlights the purity of Mitchell’s voice as well as her gift for a gorgeous melody, and its lyrics provide the perfect core for the album’s titular mood.
Yet while it frequently draws from sadness, Blue is shaded wonderfully. There are pockets of infatuation (‘A Case of You’), agitation (‘This Flight Tonight’) and fledgling optimism (‘California’) which nestle alongside the weariness; a contrast which strengthens the whole rather than undermining the effect of individual pieces. Blue contains multitudes, its very specific tales articulated in such a way that they chime with the personal histories of its listeners: one woman’s troubles projected in a way that offers solace to others. Rather than a sweeping articulation of universal heartbreak, Blue is crushingly personal, but having selected her language with such care, Joni Mitchell was able to do justice to her own history while remaining inclusive for her audience. Her unflinchingly honest songwriting remains a beacon to this day.