The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, April 30, 2003
SAY YOU WILL BUY IT

They lie sprawled and apparently lifeless on the sleeve over a wooden floor, or strung up on a meat rack, or nailed to a cross of their own making. How appropriate it should be that Buckingham and Nicks take pride of place on the cover; lying next to each other, but in opposing positions and facing away from each other – Nicks’ eyes closed, Buckingham’s eyes wide open and perhaps petrified. This is where the journey of a life gets you. And how appropriate they should take pride at being placed on the cover, because both the Fleetwood and the Mac know that the band without Buckingham-Nicks, or without Peter Green, isn’t worth this level of attention. Sixteen years ago Lindsey Buckingham had to drag the rest of the semi-comatose Mac on a lead to keep up with him on Tango In The Night, so much so that you mostly heard a virtual Stevie on that record. Now they’ve sharpened up. Christine McVie has realised her redundancy and left. Now it’s just us four to cope with, to conjure up magic, to summon up pain.

Is Say You Will the best Fleetwood Mac album? To come up with a feasible answer to that question you need to have listened to Rumours first; it is abundantly clear that the unresolved issues from that quarter-century-old mutual confessional remain unresolved, and painfully so. And this time there’s no blissful AOR carpet on which to lay your head. Buckingham’s made quite sure of that.

On last year’s CoM Mac retrospective I fantasised about the possibility of Buckingham engaging the services of the Neptunes. As brilliant as that may or may not have been, you wonder from the opening, frightening snare crack of “What’s The World Coming To” whether they were actually needed. It’s enough for Buckingham to know of them. And he knows about N*E*R*D* has listened to the Flaming Lips and much else besides, perhaps in order to stop listening to himself. Superficially – and oh how necessary the superficiality on this record is – “What’s The World” is a Victor Meldrew moan about Bloody Life Today, but listen closer to that fearful quaver in Buckingham’s voice, the way the drums don’t quite let you sink into AOR jolliness. “Every night, every day/In this house filled with shame/I can say I care/But there’s no one there.” We recall as he sings “Everyone’s gone to the moon” how the late Nina Simone scared the shit out of the listener with her demented but highly meaningful cackle through that Jonathan King song in 1970. She cut through the Dylanisms and found the diseased patient underneath.

And here we go with how the world is today (significantly, the lyric “and the band played on” appears on the track “Come”) on “Murrow Turning Over In His Grave.” Starting off as an avant-folk roundelay of voices (buried deep amongst them, Christine McVie, as much of a ghost as the shadow of Joseph Cotten in the projection room after “News On The March”), the voices keep coming at you from odd angles, like wasps trying to stem an aneurysm in your head (and this is a record which demands headphones). Fleetwood’s drums blast in and Buckingham takes a guitar solo infinitely more ferocious and splintered than anything he’s ever played before. Drum tracks blast around your ears as though all these Kleenex tissue boxes were filled with landmines. As though a war were about to start.

As it does in “Illume,” Stevie’s first song on the album – ostensibly about 9/11, but the way in which she sings words such as “What I saw on this journey/I saw history go down/I cannot pretend/That the heartache falls away” provokes one to wonder what war she’s really singing about. “I am a cliff dweller/From the old school,” she sings near the beginning, and age has given a harsher rasp to her voice, proving more firmly that Stevie’s what you get when you flip the Patti Smith coin hard enough. “Thrown Down” is a regretful postscript to “Dreams” where the attempt at rekindling a long-since broken down relationship is always doomed to failure.

If Stevie provides the emotional adventure, Lindsey provides the sonics. “Miranda” starts off with a variant on the “Big Love” riff and moves into a brilliant Paisley Park psychedelic groove (has Fleetwood’s crucial drumming ever been better recorded?) to overwhelm its standard lyric about a tortured celebrity (Madonna?). Better still is “Red Rover” which puts the likes of Mercury Rev to bed with its unforced sense of adventure. Starting off with a furious but clipped acoustic guitar line which conjures up the spectacle of 1972 Roy Wood attempting Steve Reich (check the gleefully sadistic whoop which Buckingham throws into the line “Whisper murder in your ear”) it builds up into an ominous tribal beat with the demented choral line “We’ve come we’ve come we’ve come we’ve come to take you over” like bailiffs coming for Syd Barrett’s last guitar.

The title track, “Say You Will,” is probably the nearest the album comes to having a hit single. Steviepop at her most bountiful, it’s a plea to the Other (we know which Other) to reconsider life (“If I can, get you to dance”) with a heartbreaking chord change in the latter half of the chorus. A request to go back to childhood, perhaps; that children’s choir which suddenly materialises at the end – or is it Stevie and Sheryl Crow? “Peacekeeper” is the first single proper, and significantly the only occasion on the album where Buckingham and Nicks sing together. Again we think of oblique references to The War (“This is not a test/It’s not a drill/Take no prisoners/Only kill”) but it’s still sex pistols at dawn.

Even this isn’t enough to prepare you for the astonishing “Come” wherein Lindsey Buckingham appears to offload 25 years of grief, jibes and betrayal in an excoriating exorcism. He sneers, snarls, cajoles: “Think of me sweet darling every time you don’t come…can you feel the fever?” against Industrial percussion/guitar bashing – Nick Cave meets Nine Inch Nails. With an even more deranged and agonised guitar solo, closer to Sharrock than to Hendrix, “Come” achieves exactly what the White Stripes so conspicuously fail to do in terms of “rock” and “soul.” It’s all very well to use no equipment made after 1963, but sometimes you have to have been alive in 1963 to make a difference (never forget for a second that this is music being made by people in their fifties). It’s astonishing. That final question mark of a guitar curlicue. Whaddya say to that, Stevie?

How can Stevie answer that? For the first of two such occasions on this album, she does so with a song she wrote a quarter of a century ago which didn’t make it on to either Fleetwood Mac or Rumours - “Smile At You.” But she couldn’t have sung this song in 1975 with the same careful mixture of calm and resentment that she does here. “Go on save yourself,” she growls. “I shouldn’t be here.” Over a bucolic minor chord background she carefully rebuts Buckingham’s loathing (“I can’t accept her/So be true to me”). You can feel the hate trying to overpower the underlying love. It’s a battle she has to win first.

Stevie muses further on the next two tracks. “Running Through The Garden” only just avoids being early ‘80s Noo Wave AOR, with its Huey Lewis-style keyboards and chopping guitar, but yet again notice close up how these elements do not quite cohere; they are always slightly askance, and once more the terrible increasing certainty of Nicks’ 2003 voice gives lines such as “There are too many flowers to cut down/For the love I have for your life” unclassifiable depth. It’s hard to think that she’s not singing about her years of addiction here.

And then, peace of a sort. “Silver Girl” with its exquisite Prefab Sprout guitar/synth descending chords. “A shadow moves across her face/You cannot see her soul.” Stevie sings Stevie, of course. A requiem which even lyrics like “She was a girlie girl” cannot dispel. She sounds as if she’s singing her own obituary. Sheryl Crow turns up somewhere on this track as well; another ghost, another could-have-been-me.

Back to Buckingham for the next two, relatively conventional, tracks. It’s all relative. “Steal Your Heart Away” has him cheerfully singing “All alone we go all day after day/All alone we suffer,” while drums and guitar peals cut in at you from ever more unexpected perspectives; ditto “Bleed To Love Her.” See? I can do good old singsongs like in the old days. Just like “Go Your Own Way.” Of course that was punk rock. Too right that should have been number one in ’77.

“Everybody Finds Out” has Buckingham playing Trevor Horn to Nicks’ Thereza Bazar. Under his influence Stevie (sometimes with processed ZTT vocals) seems to recant on the sentiments of “Smile At You,” now denying that any other Other is possible in Lindsey’s life. “You can’t love him! You can’t have him! I DO have him…Most of the time! (she almost laughs here) Anywhere we can!….Get AWAY!” It’s an extraordinary performance made all the more astonishing by what one realises Lindsey is doing with the music; that naggily familiar jagged guitar/bass line throughout, and then it all becomes clear with the string synth/cascading drums fadeout; Fleetwood Mac have turned into the Associates! The finale, and most of the song, is pure “Club Country.” Did Lindsey listen to much New Pop 21 years ago? The Associates never made it across to America, but it’s a fact that Buckingham, performing his solo hit “Trouble,” appeared on the same edition of TOTP in February 1982 as the Associates, making their debut appearance with “Party Fears Two.” Did he listen and quietly assimilate?

And then, Nicks suddenly returns to a becalmed reality. “Sometimes I walk by/And I look up to your balcony/Just to make sure that you were real….When I see you again/As I always do…” The song is “Destiny Rules” and the long shadow of autumn turning into winter casts itself over the album. There’s now a very palpable sense of mortality. And listen, just listen, to that guitar fadeout – Lindsey turns Fleetwood Mac into the Smiths. You could sing “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” over the fadeout. And how appropriate that is. And see how the album turns back onto itself – a verse from “Illume” about “I like the coastal cities/I like the lights” returns in this song. A life resolving.

It’s now time for Buckingham and Nicks to say their goodbyes. Lindsey goes first with the bizarre “Say Goodbye,” performed with faux-jubilation over a similar askew folk/minimalist waltz guitar to that of “Red Rover.” “Once you said goodbye to me” he sings with a strange and frankly disturbing elation, or rather hiccups it like Buddy Holly, “now I say goodbye to you.” Cheerio, buona sera and fuck off.

Ha.

Ha.

Bloody ha.

Answer that Stevie.

Well she did. “Once you said goodbye to me.”

And now she says it again, in a song written nearly 30 years ago, “Goodbye Baby.” She was dying then (“And I who never, never said goodbye/As I slipped away…You were with me all the time/I’ll be with you one day”). Sung over the simplest of guitar melodies and once you have listened to this you will weep for what you didn’t understand, even through listening to Rumours alone. That’s what she had to say. And he knows it.

“Don’t take me to the tower/And take my child away…Yes I was outspoken.”

I’ll tell you a Nina Simone performance which means a lot to me; “That’s All I Want From You,” from her 1978 album Baltimore. These were the lyrics; she declaims them, firmly but fairly.

“A little love that grows and grows – not one that comes and goes. That’s all I want from you.

“A sunny day with hopes piled up to the sky – not one that comes and dies. That’s all I want from you.

“Don’t let me down. Just show me that you care. Remember - when you give, you also get your share. Don’t let me down. I have no time to wait. TOMORROW MAY NEVER COME. AND DREAMERS DREAM TOO LATE.

And all this time Lindsey Buckingham has been singing to a ghost. The reverie of a dying man. Could he now sing “Man Of The World” and mean it?

He should have known of course from the opening section of “Running Through The Garden” with its reference to “the deadliest poison” and its guitar line and vocal which remind me so much of Stevie’s true descendent; Kristin Hersh on “Delicate Cutters.”

But it’s not what Fleetwood Mac should have known 30 or 25 or 16 years ago which matters; it’s what they now know, the means by which they learned it and the means by which they are able to express it. Pop album of the year? What else is on offer? The cynical satisfaction in self-pity called Think Tank? The arrogant “it’s enough for me to exist” assumptions which make up American Life? The belief in nothing that constitutes Black Cherry? Ladies and gentlemen, you cheat me. Say You Will belongs in a different ballpark altogether. I would say that it is the best Fleetwood Mac album, and that Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks are more than ever the most important pop musicians alive today.


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