Critiquing the Critique – 40 Years Later

Critiquing the Critique – 40 Years Later ….celebrating the Rumours album’s 40th anniversary

As the new member of Fleetwood Mask, I’ve been doing a bit of historical research in addition to the musical due diligence required to learn all the songs. Perusing, whose “artist” section is like a vintage shop full of decades-old articles ripe for dusting and re-evaluating, I ran across this gem: Article about Rumours on RollingStone website

It’s a routine review of a hot-off-the-presses release called Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. I would imagine that writer John Swenson received an advance copy of the album, which makes him one of a few who heard it early, and had no clue this thing on his turntable would spin into the phenomenon it is today. His take? While he rightfully sings the praises of Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham, he seems to miss the mark completely when it comes to Stevie Nicks, giving him a kind of blind spot regarding the album’s enduring strengths. I’d love to chat with Swenson and hear what he has to say now, forty years later.

So what did he get right? He describes Fleetwood Mac in terms of a California pop tradition that includes vocal-harmony-rich bands like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Eagles, arguing that Mac’s transition from Peter Green-era blues rock to the ’77 version was not contrived or unexpected. “The early sixties blues scene in England had as much to do with rural American folk music as the urban blues sound,” he writes, adding that Christine McVie as songwriter “moves easily into the thematic trappings of the California rock myth.” He compares her with Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, both high praise and a compelling point. He calls Buckingham’s contribution “the major surprise” on the album, and cites the role of the acoustic guitar in “Go Your Own Way” as representing the influence of the Byrds.

The highlighting of Christine McVie is where fans of Buckingham and Nicks may take issue with the review. Not only is she the leader of the three vocalists, in Swenson’s view, but also “only (her) voice has much character.” Now I can understand calling McVie the bandleader in 1977– she claims the most writing credit on Rumours – but come on, if there’s anything one can say about Stevie Nicks’ voice it’s that it possesses a distinctive timbre in evidence going back to the Buckingham/Nicks record. Sure, it’s not for everybody, but I wouldn’t call it characterless. And Lindsey Buckingham’s vocal tone cuts glass on “Second Hand News” and “Never Going Back Again,” period.

Which brings us to this howler: “Nicks has nothing on Rumours to compare with ‘Rhiannon,’ her smash from the last album. ‘Dreams’ is a nice but fairly lightweight tune, and her nasal singing is the only weak vocal on the record.” Wait, what? Cue needle screeching on vinyl! In retrospect it’s hard not to see this statement as a first-degree pop culture commentator fail, even though Swenson could never have predicted that “Dreams” would one day be the soundtrack to a generation’s backseat-of-the-station-wagon upbringing, and sell more copies than just about any single ever.

In any case, nothing excuses his lack of even mentioning “Gold Dust Woman,” which for my money ranks among Nicks’, and Fleetwood Mac’s, greatest songs. I should point out here how daunting it was for Fleetwood Mask to try and play the whole Rumours album live because it ends with this number that, while a masterpiece, isn’t exactly a rah-rah, goodnight-everybody party anthem. Lyrically it hearkens back to that earlier British blues period, to Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman,” but a decade on. Where Green’s spooky girlfriend was dabbling in witchcraft, Nicks’ updated version has been steeping in the seedy underbelly of the L.A. scene so long she has emerged just downright evil. Nicks doesn’t get due credit for her lyric writing; the opening couplet, “Rock on gold dust woman/Take your silver spoon and dig your grave,” is one that Pulitzer Prize winning poet Bob Dylan would be proud to call his own. It’s our entrance into a haunting piece that builds to Rumours’ ambivalent and ingenious finale, a roiling cauldron of dobro and buried screeches and Nicks chanting about shadows and dragons.

It’s too bad this was all overlooked by Swenson, who focused on the band’s “bright little three-minute singles with a hook in every chorus.” Of course those singles and the pretty California-style harmonies are a crucial part of Rumours, but so are the melancholy and darkness evident throughout. For every songbird singing there’s loneliness like a heartbeat driving you mad, and the seamless interplay between the two is what makes this record linger in the brain long after the needle has lifted from the final groove.

But that’s just my take. Read the review. What do you think?

Best, Jason