Shortly after I was dumped last winter, my sister the high school chemistry teacher gave me the assignment to study Fleetwood Mac and their iconic bonds. Specifically, I was to listen to the Rumours album straight through and stop listening to whiny breakup music like The Script and 21. Now, the songs on Rumours are pretty well-known, but it is a completely different experience to listen to them as an album.
Rumours, the ancient queen of break up music, is the product two very different and difficult break ups. Bass player John McVie and singer/keyboardist Christine McVie were in the middle of a divorce, and the Buckingham-Nicks duo, Lindsey and Stevie, were also calling it quits. Despite the pain and hurt and betrayal that all parties were feeling, they overcame everything else for the sake of the music. Music that has had a lasting influence on all other music since — Rumours is the seventh best selling album of all time and ranked 26th on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The first half of Rumours begins with the bouncing “Second Hand News,” transitions into Stevie Nicks’s haunting “Dreams,” the simple and sad “Never Going Back Again,” and then Christine McVie’s stubbornly optimistic “Don’t Stop,” then Lindsey Buckingham’s stubbornly pessimistic “Go Your Own Way.” The whole album pivots around Christine’s beautiful and melodic “Songbird,” then continues with the only group-written song on the album, “The Chain.” Following “The Chain” come the sensual “You Make Loving Fun” and the non-inquisitive “I Don’t Want to Know.” Rounding off the album are “Oh Daddy” and “Gold Dust Woman.”
Let’s take it back to the beginning and check this album against my list of standards. After all, we can’t give it preferential treatment based on reputation alone…
First questions, how much of this album is depressing/empowering? Is there something on here other than songs about break ups? I give Rumours a 10 out of 10 on good balance. Songs like “Don’t Stop,” “Songbird” and “You Make Loving Fun” buoy up darker songs like “Dreams,” “Go Your Own Way,” and “The Chain.” And the songs “Never Going Back Again,” “Second Hand News,” and “I Don’t Want to Know” throw an up tempo spin into the album that mask deep thought with light music. The album wraps up with the somber duo “Oh Daddy” and “Gold Dust Woman,” both songs that have central themes other than the relationship turmoil that the two former couples of the band were going through (the first being an homage to the band’s drummer Mick Fleetwood and the second being a lament for Los Angeles and cocaine).
The next question was whether or not the relationship scenarios were realistic. More than any other album on this list, there is a tangible air of sincerity to each individual song onRumours and on the album as a whole. Everything that I’ve read about this album says that the recording sessions were the only time the band members would all speak to each other, and then they would only talk about the music. Each member of the Mac team poured their souls into these songs and exposed themselves the way bands seldom do. And they left nothing out. Christine McVie wrote “You Make Loving Fun” about her first boyfriend post-divorce, and ex-husband John dutifully played the bass for it. Their only whole-band collaboration, “The Chain,” is an anthem to betrayal and lost love (“If you don’t love me now, then you’ll never love me again. I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain”). This album is the raw nerves of Fleetwood Mac willingly left vulnerable to the listening ears of the whole world.
The next topics are social and musical maturity. Each song, for me particularly those by Stevie Nicks (but I’ve always been partial to Stevie Nicks), displays a level of social and intellectual maturity in the lyrics. Some shining moments on the album include: “Now here I go again, I see with crystal visions. I keep my visions to myself. It’s only me who wants to wrap around your dreams, and have you any dreams you’d like to sell?” and “And I wish you all the love in the world, but most of all, I wish it from myself. And the songbirds keep singing like they know the score.” and “I know you’re hoping to find someone who’s going to give you peace of mind. When times go bad, when times go rough, won’t you lay me down in the tall grass and let me do my stuff?” and “Oh Daddy, you soothe me with your smile. You’re letting me know you’re the best thing in my life.” and “Rock on gold dust woman. Take your silver spoon, dig your grave. Heartless challenge, pick your path and I’ll pray.” Particularly important for me in regards to social maturity is Nicks’s “Gold Dust Woman” and its portrayal of drug addiction and life in Los Angeles. This song is eery and ghostly, painfully tragic, and downright beautiful. It’s my favorite song on this album.
Now, musically, this album is a powerhouse of good tunes that ruled the FM waves in the late 70’s. Songs range from simple and melodic like Buckingham’s guitar piece “Never Going Back Again” and Christine’s keyboard-driven “Songbird” (sidenote: this is the song that I actually want to dance to in my real wedding, should such an event ever occur) to the complex and harmonic, like “The Chain” and “Oh Daddy.” Each of the songwriters demonstrates incredible aptitude in their own trademark songs (Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way,” Nicks’s “Dreams” and C. McVie’s “Don’t Stop”), and their combined talents shine even stronger in “The Chain,” which in my personal opinion is the most intricate and powerful song on the album.
The next question is about balance again, in particular the balance between dumping songs and getting dumped songs. And I have one thing to say about this: most of these songs come from both angles, so there is a balance of themes for sure. The driving force behind these songs is a communal feeling of betrayal, and within betrayal, you both leave and are left. Whether you ultimately leave him or he ultimately leaves you, if you feel like you’ve been stabbed in the kidneys by a large butcher knife, then this album knows how you feel. And promises you something better (“If you’re life was bad to you, just think what tomorrow will do”).
The last question (because the last last question on the list I actually addressed with the first question) asks if this album has a flow of thought progression. And I think that the structure of Rumours is carefully planned to fold the listener into the complex world of betrayal, lust and love that the members of Fleetwood Mac were living in. This album is filled with players and leavers and chain-breakers, but we never go too far before we’re reminded that love, real love, can and does exist. If we pushed “Don’t Stop” next to “Songbird” and “You Make Loving Fun” and then stuck them at the end of the album together, the entire composition of the album is distorted and lost. Because the ‘love songs’ and the ‘breakup songs’ are spit up amongst each other, one could argue that there is no thought progression, and if we only think linearly that would be true-ish. But Rumours is more complex than linear progression; it works cyclically because we feel things cyclically. Ever heard of the five stages of grief? In my experience, you don’t just go through them once, you go through them several times. You don’t only get angry once. You get angry then you get over it, then you get angry again. Rumours cycles through the broad spectrum of emotions that surface in a post-breakup world, and it cycles through them beautifully and sensitively.
All in all, Rumours is one of my favorite albums of all time, and it is definitely the best break-up album to ever have been released.
Note to the video: This is a live recording of Fleetwood Mac performing “The Chain” during the Tango in the Night tour. Please enjoy Mick Fleetwood’s face.