As recently as last year guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was giving Mirage a shrug:
But in the wake of the Tusk album, the band – which had slowly gotten drawn into what it was, and was really quite charmed by it and loved it when we delivered it to Warner Bros. – had a rethink on how they felt about it when it didn’t sell 15 million albums. So in the wake of that, then we made Mirage, in which there was this kind of dictate that came down from the other four saying, “Well, we’re not going to do that process again, Lindsey, we’re going to go back to something a little more straight ahead
He wasn’t foolin’. Mirage even has a song called “Straight Back.”
Released months before Michael Jackson became the new Fleetwood Mac by a factor of ten, Mirage, to use today’s rebarbative political jargon, stopped the bleeding. Not only did it hold the #1 spot for five consecutive weeks in the late summer of 1982 (the last collection of new Mac songs to do so in America), but it clung to #2 for the rest of the fall while John Cougar’s American Fool sold in Rumours-esque quantities. “Hold Me” debuted at #33 — a rare honor in the pre-Soundscan days and a miracle during the music industry’s post-disco doldrums — and hovered at #4 for weeks while the beloved “Gypsy” and solid “Love in Store” followed it into the top twenty. “Oh Diane” even went top ten in England. A most palpable hit, then, but an ephemeral one. By 1983 Stevie Nicks had returned to a remunerative solo career and Buckingham to his battalion of Synclaviers; Christine McVie hooked up with pre-yuppie-comeback Steve Winwood for an amiable, bland solo debut; and John McVie and Mick Fleetwood crawled back into their bottles.
Familiar with Buckingham’s therapyspeak and tendency to self-aggrandize while hiding beneath a carapace of mope, I’ve read little in the last thirty-four years to challenge the conventional wisdom. If Rumours had D-I-V-O-R-C-E and Tusk had Lindsey Goes Punk, Mirage had no angles: ten tunes, played with Fleetwood Mac’s usual finesse. If there’s an aural difference, credit a mix that creates the impression, fictional or real, of three singer-songwriters harmonizing around the same mike over a live rhythm section. Mirage is Fleetwood Mac’s warmest recording. Rubber Soul warm. Logs-in-the-fireplace warm. Early eighties liquor ad warm. Thanks to a sparkling three-disc remaster overseen by co-producer Ken Caillat, Mirage sheds the Kleenex box sound that was a touchstone of early CD releases. The result is a collection whose creators had learned to fold the structural innovations of Tusk into top forty fare. Mirage isn’t safe or a retreat.
Like Tusk‘s subtle refraction of punk-inspired economy and Tango in the Night‘s absorption of world beat and doctor’s waiting room Fauvism, Mirage does follow a plan, perhaps inspired by the absence of a reason for existing; musicians love back-to-basics records when they don’t want to work together. It synthesizes the instrumental tropes of a generation ago: doo wop (“Book of Love”), country (“That’s Alright”), rockabilly (“Oh Diane”), Motown (“Love in Store”). Even Tusk gets a second look (“Eyes of the World”). The clarity of the new mixes impresses me. Did you know Buckingham plucks a banjo in “That’s Alright”? Were the three discrete guitar parts in the fade out for “Hold Me” so audible in 1982? Isn’t John McVie’s three-note bass line in the first thirty seconds of “Can’t Go Back” a marvel of economy and heft? For the last time on a Mac album the three singer-songwriters were in peak form. Nicks, coming off a triumphant 1981 after Bella Donna became a worldwide hit, offered the static and brooding set piece “Straight Back,” a farewell to her high notes in “That’s Alright,” and the luminous “Gypsy” – a wistful reverie describing how a young woman with some lace and paper flowers became the star she wanted to be. Buckingham’s arpeggiated hook and rippling solo are among the elements that make the track headphone fodder. McVie’s “Wish You Were Here” is a bowlful of mush, but she and Buckingham, breathing into the mike as closely as if she and not Nicks had been his Angel of Death, transform “Hold Me” from the innocuousness of the demo (included on the bonus disc) into a masterpiece of color. The outro adduces the excellence of the rhythm section: McVie on piano embellishing the melody line, drum roll, bass holding it together, second drum roll auguring the track’s most traditional solo, shrewd fade out.
“We ended up making a far better album than we gave ourselves credit for many years,” Fleetwood said in a recent interview. Don’t confuse the cohesion for tranquility, though. To peek into this study, explore the material from the brief Mirage tour, a PBS staple from my childhood. The dapper Buckingham excepted, the rest of his mates still mugged and fluffed their hair and beards as if the eighties hadn’t started yet (and I would argue that they hadn’t). Of the unreleased material Nicks’ rocker “Smile At You” is the sleeper; keeping this track off the original pressing speaks to the alternate behavior governing the band.
A word on those demos: they’re educational inasmuch as they show how even Stevie Nicks kept her eye on verse-chorus-verse strictures. What Buckingham did to the released “Book of Love,” the track with the most debts to early rock and roll, is textbook example of how the mixing board produces ironic complements. Missing from the early version are those mocking ha-ha-ha-ha harmonies; without them “Book of Love” is a J.D. Souther number with an ear for candy corn arrangement (the piano tinkle and Nicks’ background vocal are more pronounced). Even when the fivesome’s truce held they couldn’t resist squeezing lemon juice over each other’s songs.
Snappy, assured, owing noting to L.A. studio rock, Mirage documents the evolution of a band for whom the usual verities got muddled by a singular and, five years after Rumours, ever-fraught axis: if it were up to the McVies and Fleetwood, the band would’ve kept recording blues pop; if it were up to Lindsey Buckingham, he would have recorded material commensurate with the noises wrung from his guitar and the lushness of his harmonies; if it were up to Stevie Nicks, she would have joined Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Mirage makes Toto IV sound particularly conventional). The only nod to Reagan-era music I can hear is Buckingham’s pinprick guitar over the verses in “Only Over You,” also present in Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory,’ which shared chart space with “Hold Me.” But it was a well wrought cul de sac. It pointed the way to nothing and augured little about Fleetwood Mac’s future except its fealty to professionalism. This deluxe remastering may tell us little that we didn’t already know in 1982, and that’s fine. Wait till those 12″ mixes of the Tango in the Night singles get boxed too.