It’s official – there’s something Bill Clinton did that I may not be able to forgive him for. He brought Fleetwood Mac back together.
As I write this, I’m way, way behind on writing music reviews. Fleetwood Mac’s Behind The Mask is an album I bought when it first came out, and it’s taken me this long to get around to weighing in on it, even though at the time I liked it quite a bit – always have. What’s bad about that lag, though, is that Fleetwood Mac has since morphed back into something resembling the lineup from its 70s/80s heyday…and yet something less than it once was. And I’m having to fight down the urge to talk about that and bring that comparison up.
Behind The Mask was a transitional album into a new Fleetwood Mac era. Lindsey Buckingham, who had been the most demanding of the creative pistons firing in the Mac’s engine, had left the group behind after 1987’s Tango In The Night (and a guest stint on a new single for the 1988 Greatest Hits album), but this didn’t doom the group as much as I remember thinking it would. Say what you will about it taking two players to fill Buckingham’s shoes on stage and in the studio, the remaining members had already auditioned replacements for the all-important position of guitarist, and wound up with not one, but two, promising candidates: Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. Not only did both men have an excellent pedigree as steadily-employed, in-demand studio guitarists, they brought their own not-inconsiderable songwriting skills to the table.
And in an amusing demonstration of the question of band identity and how much of that identity lies with the guy in the mixing booth, producer Greg Landanyi made sure that this Fleetwood Mac didn’t sound drastically different from the last Fleetwood Mac that had walked into a recording studio. Buckingham even returned again to lay down acoustic guitar tracks on one song. (Another interesting guest musician credit I noticed on Behind The Mask is Steve Croes; credited here with Synclavier, Croes is a frequent collaborator and session player for Star Trek composer Jay Chattaway.) But in the end, the band’s sound hasn’t shifted a million miles away from where it was. For all of my thinking, in the aftermath of Tango, that Buckingham was going to take the sound with him, in retrospect Behind The Mask sounds more like Fleetwood Mac than, say, Out Of The Cradle does.
“Skies The Limit”, the well-chosen lead single “Save Me”, and the lovely duet ballad “Do You Know” demonstrate what Fleetwood Mac still had then that it doesn’t have now: Christine McVie. Her divine vocals, just-right keyboard and piano work and her songwriting…there was a time when I didn’t really rate her as a major factor in the band’s sound. I’ve since come to realize how badly I can misjudge things sometimes. Christine McVie keeps the ship afloat on this album. And “Do You Know” was a collaboration with Burnette, which shows that the new recruits more than earned their slots in the band. “Save Me” couldn’t have been better chosen as the first song to hit radio, as it has a vibe reminiscent of some of McVie’s best singles in the past; it’s a close conceptual cousin of Tango‘s “Isn’t It Midnight” and “Little Lies”.
I’m still not that partial to Stevie Nicks’ songs here. Considering how much I grew to like her input on Say You Will (and that’s a big turnaround for me), I went back to this album determined to listen with an open mind…somehow her songs just don’t do it for me here. “When The Sun Goes Down”, a Vito/Burnette collaboration, demonstrates why these guys got the job – they’ve got the bluesy-electric-rock thing down, and this song doesn’t sound too far off from some of Lindsey Buckingham’s early numbers soon after joining the band. This isn’t to say that Vito and Burnette appropriated their predecessor’s style, but that they’re steeped in the same background. The two together were a really were a canny choice to fill his shoes.
Overall, I find myself looking back on Behind The Mask with fondness. Okay, even some of Nicks’ stuff, I admit it – I just have to be in a rare Stevie Nicks mood for it to hit me right. This could have been – though I’ll leave it to you out there to decide for yourselves whether or not it should have been – the Fleetwood Mac that stayed together into the new millennium. Where the tortured-perfectionist-artist / ex-lover dynamic may have produced some dynamite songs at one time, and I’m not denying that it did (though I grimaced to watch them hash it out again and again in a recent special about the making of Say You Will), I’m not sure bringing back the Buckingham/Nicks chemisty was right for the band. In time, this lineup could’ve been incredible. Behind The Mask shows that it was already very promising.
Thank you for once again reading my review of Say You Will.
- Skies The Limit (3:45)
- Love Is Dangerous (3:18)
- In The Back Of My Mind (7:03)
- Do You Know (4:19)
- Save Me (4:16)
- Affairs Of The Heart (4:22)
- When The Sun Goes Down (3:18)
- Behind The Mask (4:18)
- Stand On The Rock (4:00)
- Hard Feelings (4:54)
- Freedom (4:13)
- When It Comes To Love (4:09)
- The Second Time (2:31)
Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1990
Total running time: 54:26