I’m okay now, really, but I got kind of shook up the other morning. I stumbled out of bed, turned on the radio and heard a song by Boston, then Springsteen’s “Backstreets,” an organ tune from Stevie Winwood, some Eric Clapton and something by Fleetwood Mac. I’d never heard of the Mac album, something called Tango in the Night, but I knew what was what — I was trapped back in the 1970s, and punk was never gonna come and save us. Reeling from the implications, I fell onto the CD player. It was the 1980s after all.
Fleetwood Mac is back, and as the baby boomers troop to record stores, the band is right on time. With Tango in the Night, the members of Fleetwood Mac doubtless hope to rule the airwaves as they did with the 1977 Rumours, the best-selling one-artist album (nearly 20 million copies sold) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Tango may not be a world-beating 1980s LP; that seems to demand Message and Image and Novelty as well as craft. Then again, radio is moving away from crunch and toward insinuation once again — ask Bruce Hornsby. Coproducers Lindsey Buckingham and Richard Dashut have layered listenable sounds like true disciples of Brian Wilson. Given the chance to sink in, Tango in the Night will.
Rumours, the bench-mark Fleetwood Mac album, set lovers’ quarrels in shimmering, paradoxical harmonies from the ex-lovers themselves. Listening to songs by Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie was like spinning the TV dial to see three different soap operas with the same cast. To follow up Rumours, Fleetwood Mac spent a million dollars to record the homemade-sounding double album Tusk, followed that with a live set and then sort of fizzled out, garnering its later hit singles (“Hold Me,” “Gypsy”) from a considerably lower profile. My guess is that the band had tapped the anger that also spawned punk in 1977 but it then got sidetracked into trying to recapture the shimmer instead of the spark.
When the band drifted apart after making Mirage in 1982, it looked like the postpunk, big-beat 1980s were too impatient for Fleetwood Mac’s fine-tuned midtempo introspection. Tango in the Night sounds five years newer than Mirage, but only if you listen carefully. Buckingham, as arranger and main songwriter, uses computerized zithers and toy pianos, as well as synthetic-sounding voices, most effectively in the Beach Boys-style chorale that caps McVie’s “Everywhere.” He also uses rhythm machines to augment Mick Fleetwood’s steady-state drumming. But like Mirage, this album is a cornucopia of hooks, with arranging touches that are thoroughly cinematic. “Tango in the Night” moves from the lonely present tense, with rippling zither and quietly ticking drums, to the lusty past, where drums stomp and guitars roar; in “Family Man” a classical guitar is the voice of Buckingham’s conscience.
As usual, Fleetwood Mac sings about love, and mostly about lovers who hedge their bets. But now the question is whether they can connect at all. In the songs on Mirage, the lovers were still breaking up and making up; on Tango in the Night there’s considerably more distance — just the thing for the era of safe sex.
On Buckingham’s “Big Love” and “Tango in the Night,” the guy wakes up alone and remembers an old lover — he’s wistful and horny at the same time — while in a third song, “You and I, Part II,” by Buckingham and McVie, he may or may not have someone in bed with him. In Sandy Stewart’s “Seven Wonders,” Stevie Nicks recalls when, long ago, “You touched my hand/I played it cool”; in “When I See You Again,” she muses, “Will it be over?” In the album’s catchiest song, “Little Lies,” Christine McVie wonders if she and a sometime lover would be “better off apart.”
The members of Fleetwood Mac are better off together. As solo acts, Nicks is too narcissistic and spacey, McVie too bland, Buckingham too paranoid. Together, at their best, they’re Every-lover. Yet even with Buckingham’s ingenious arrangements for distraction, Nicks stays pretty insufferable on Tango. The album’s duds are her Gone with the Wind fantasy “Welcome to the Room … Sara” (“This is a dream, right/Deja vu/Did I come here on my own/Oh I see”) and the cloying “When I See You Again,” on which she burbles the line “What’s the matter, baby” until the answer is obvious.
Buckingham and McVie, meanwhile, have developed a collaboration that gives McVie an edge and Buckingham some ease. “You and I, Part II” (“You and I, Part I” is the B side of the “Big Love” single) grafts McVie’s affection (“Keep your heart open and your eyes shut tight”) to Buckingham’s dread (“The phantoms crawl out of the night”) in a gentle, trotting tune laced with, of all things, the melody from “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”
In a way, Tango in the Night tries to do with emotions what Buckingham and Dashut do with guitar tones, sculpting highs and lows that grab attention without blowing out speakers. Although the album dishes out ear candy, it’s not only about the pleasures of popcraft. Its sonic overlays, dissolves and zooms show how passion swirls behind the neatest of façades — melting in McVie’s songs, babbling in Nicks’s, howling in Buckingham’s. In the cool, chastity-belted 1980s, that’s still worth remembering.