'Rumours': The Greatest Breakup(s) Album
Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Grammy win for Album of the Year last month. It did not win for any grand social statement—which the Grammys tend to ignore—or for shattering musical barriers, though little innovations like drumming on an office chair contributed to its impeccable pop-rock sound. It won for having 11 brilliant songs—some wistful, some buoyant, some haunting, and all seemingly directed at bandmates.
“Rumours,” was forged in the ugly aftermath of breakups and divorces involving all five of its members, all in the year directly preceding “Rumours”’s release, 1976. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, the guitar-and-vocals duo who had catapulted Fleetwood Mac to the heights of commercial success when they joined the band two years earlier, saw their relationship unravel. So did John and Christine McVie, the bassist and keyboard player respectively. So too did drummer Mick Fleetwood and his wife. The band channeled their personal pain into making some of the best, and most devastating music of their career. “Rumours” rightfully came to be considered an iconic breakup(s) album.
The legacy of “Rumours” is, in many ways, complicated to evaluate. It sometimes stands for the entirety of Fleetwood Mac’s “golden era” output (from their 1975 self-titled album to 1987’s “Tango in the Night”), which is a shame. All of those albums are classics to varying degrees, but the power and success of “Rumours” acts as a sort of black hole into which Fleetwood Mac discussions vanish. This reductionism is at least partly due to gender. Women comprise two of its three primary songwriters (Nicks and Christine McVie), making Fleetwood Mac a relatively feminine outlier in the classic-rock canon. Critics tend to minimize and simplify the female artists in that canon. Take, for example, Joni Mitchell, who had an incredible string of highly acclaimed albums in the early ’70s, but is mostly remembered only for her magnum opus “Blue.”
This trend persists 40 years later. Given her importance to the band, it is perpetually shocking to see how little space Stevie Nicks gets on “Rumours.” With only two solo lead songs (“Dreams” and “Gold Dust Woman”) and two more where she shares the microphone (“The Chain” and “I Don’t Want to Know”), she has the shortest spotlight time of Fleetwood Mac’s vocalist trio. Her impassioned and iconic “Silver Springs” was cut from the album because of its initial runtime and relegated to the B-side of “Go Your Own Way.” Contemporary critical analysis of Stevie Nicks is in retrospect stunningly problematic, with more space dedicated to her appearance than her music. One piece in the early ’80s by famed critic Lester Bangs was simply titled “Stevie Nicks: Lilith or Bimbo?”
In spite of this unfair treatment, Nicks leaves behind a legacy greater than those of her highly talented and interesting bandmates. On “Rumours,” she further develops the mysticism of earlier Fleetwood Mac songs like “Rhiannon.” Her lyrics on the closing “Gold Dust Woman,” complemented by the song’s captivating instrumentation, are more haunting and evocative than anything Fleetwood Mac had done previously. The mesmerizing two-chord simplicity of “Dreams,” the band’s only number-one single, has a similar effect. On Nicks’s third songwriting contribution, the country-inflected “I Don’t Want to Know,” she and Buckingham turn mutual bitterness into close-harmony fireworks. Often overlooked, it’s a career vocal highlight for both, which is especially clear in the vulnerability of the second verse: “You got me rocking and a-reeling / Hanging on to you.” All three of these songs poignantly turn her struggles with relationships, identity, and substance abuse into near-mythology. Nicks essentially created the image of the ethereal superstar. Artists like Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and even Madonna have all borrowed heavily from her mold to express themselves in similarly mystical ways.
Of course, the rest of the band pulls their weight, too. 1977 caught Nicks, Buckingham, and Christine McVie at their respective peaks. From the glimmering acoustic masterpiece “Never Going Back Again” to the barn-burning hit “Go Your Own Way,” Buckingham’s contributions amaze, though his chair-drumming adventurousness would peak with 1979’s “Tusk.” Meanwhile, McVie found some hope amid the despair: The album’s one unambiguously optimistic love song, “You Make Loving Fun,” alternates between grooving funk and soaring pop. But the irresistible Clinton campaign anthem “Don’t Stop” and heartrending mid-album breather “Songbird” conceal anxiety (“I know you don’t believe that it’s true / I never meant any harm to you”) and longing (“And I wish you all the love in the world / But most of all, I wish it from myself”) under their deceptively cheery surfaces.
And then, there’s “The Chain.” Tying together multiple song-fragments and crediting every member, the band’s signature song starts the second side with some of the richest vocal harmonies ever committed to record—and only builds from there. The chorus layers melodies from Buckingham, Nicks, and McVie over each other, creating a fitting echo: “I can still hear you saying (still hear you saying) you would never break the chain / (Never break the chain)” as John McVie’s bass and Mick Fleetwood’s drums crescendo, driving home this expression of betrayal and disappointment. One breakdown and bass-driven rebuild later, the vocalists sing with increasing desperation, “Chains keep us together.” We don’t need to fully understand this lyric. We know they mean every word.—Staff writers Edward M. Litwin's and Trevor J. Levin's column, "Sound and Vision," evaluates the cultural legacy of the late 1970s, one album at a time.
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