Tango in the Night is the final album the band would record as an infamous quintet. It’s a pop and production masterpiece, yet remains this monolithic, lucrative idea of a Fleetwood Mac record.
It started with “Sara.” The first two Fleetwood Mac albums to feature Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks—the self-titled album and Rumours—featured production typical of the pop-rock generated in Los Angeles in the ’70s. They were professional and pristine, exhibiting an instrumental and emotional warmth that was, in terms of the actual recording technique and the cerebral atmosphere of the people making the records, a product of isolation. On their next record, Tusk, Buckingham shifted the balance of Fleetwood Mac’s studio pop. He deliberately produced his songs so that they sounded trebly and makeshift—as if they were translated from brain to tape as quickly as possible—and produced Nicks’ and Christine McVie’s songs with a lush and carefully-sculpted dimensionality. “Sara,” a song Nicks wrote to a daughter she never had, is so gently shaped that every instrumental and vocal materializes in the song like vapor in the atmosphere. At the Blockbuster Music Awards in 2001, Nicks said that when she writes songs, she tries to “make little worlds” for the listener. Whether intentional or not, this sensibility invaded Buckingham’s production of the song; “Sara,” as it appears on Tusk, is its own world, a complete environment, a beach house built out of sighs.
The follow-up to Tusk, 1982’s Mirage, was a kind reflexive scaling back; both Warner Bros. and Buckingham wanted to regenerate the success and the coherent atmosphere of Rumours. It didn’t take. The band members had already drifted too far from each other: Nicks sang country-western and synth-pop songs; Buckingham quoted Pachelbel’s Canon; McVie’s formal romanticism began to take on a crystalline quality; the production flowed in the direction of their individual fascinations. After a brief tour, the band went on hiatus. Nicks released two successful solo albums; McVie and Buckingham put out one each. In 1985, Buckingham had begun work on an additional solo album, when Mick Fleetwood suggested Buckingham fold his new songs into the more monolithic, more lucrative idea of a Fleetwood Mac record.
The resulting album, Tango in the Night, is exactly that: a monolithic, lucrative idea of a Fleetwood Mac record. It was recorded over eighteen months between 1986 and 1987, mostly at Buckingham’s home studio in L.A. Buckingham devoted himself to the record, laboring intensely over its songs, its sounds, and the integrity of its design. Recording technology had advanced substantially since the early ’80s, and Buckingham found the methods by which he could determine the shape and temperature of a Fleetwood Mac song had expanded.
“Most of the vocal parts were recorded track by track,” he told the *New York Times *in 1987. “The voices used in the textured vocal choirs were mostly mine. I used a Fairlight machine that samples real sounds and blends them orchestrally.” Out of these newly available materials, he could practically build an entire band, which was useful at the time. Mick Fleetwood was almost entirely consumed by his cocaine habit, and the band had been experiencing an internal drift for years. “Constructing such elaborate layering is a lot like painting a canvas and is best done in solitude,” Buckingham added.
The album’s artwork, “Homage a Henri Rousseau” by Brett-Livingstone Strong, is so lush and romantic that it walks a fine line between formal elegance and kitsch, blending the terrestrial with the celestial. It’s an accurate illustration of Tango in the Night’s sound design, of the glitterings and humid shimmers that Buckingham placed in the songs. He made each track on Tango just as he produced “Sara”: less an arrangement of bass, guitar, drums, and vocals than a complete world, a living panorama. There’s a phenomenal wholeness to the recordings on Tango that seems like a superficial compensation for how deeply fragmented the band was at the time.
After Nicks resurfaced from her cocaine addiction at the Betty Ford Clinic, she visited Buckingham’s studio for a few weeks. Three of her recordings figure into the finished Tango, only two of which were written by her. Her voice, invariably hoarse after years of cocaine abuse, often warps or fails the already incomplete material. She howls her way through “Seven Wonders,” a song written mostly by Sandy Stewart. (Nicks receives credit because she misheard “All the way down you held the line” as “All the way down to Emmiline”; for Nicks—and I don’t disagree—sometimes accident and authorship are indistinguishable.) For all of its bluster, the song is not only enhanced by the incidents of its arrangement but is the incidents of its arrangement; try to imagine the song without its synth hook and hear the rest of it evaporate. On “When I See You Again,” Nicks’ voice almost crumbles and shatters into atoms. “Stevie was the worst she’s ever been,” Buckingham told Uncut in 2013. “I didn’t recognize her…I had to pull performances out of words and lines and make parts that sounded like her that weren’t her.” Fittingly, each verse and chorus that Nicks sings sounds generated by a different uncanny assemblage of Stevie, among them one who sings in a kind of mutilated whisper. After the bridge, Nicks completely disappears. Buckingham finishes the song.
Buckingham’s songs on Tango are less knotted than they were on Tusk and Mirage, newly permissive of space. The first single, Buckingham’s “Big Love,” is a song that inadvertently simulates the essential failure of the album. It is devoted to a totally abstracted and imaginary form of love, while Tango in the Night is devoted to a totally abstracted and imaginary form of Fleetwood Mac (neither of which could be assembled in reality). The song’s arrangement feels austere and detached, a byproduct of the narrator’s alienation, but it’s also decorated with overlapping, pointillist guitar phrases. Even the empty spaces on Tango feel like deliberately-wrought emptinesses—for instance, the airy synths that hover over the verses of McVie’s “Everywhere,” or Buckingham’s title track, which through its sense of space imparts the feeling of rowing through fog and mystery.
Still, it’s McVie whose work is most realized by Buckingham’s impressionism. Her “Everywhere” is the best song on the record. Like “Big Love” it too is about encountering an idea too big to contain within oneself (love, again). But where “Big Love” apprehends it with icy suspicion, “Everywhere” responds with warmth, empathy, and buoyancy, describing a kind of devotion so deeply felt that it produces weightlessness in a person. Its incandescent texture is felt in almost any music that could be reasonably described as balearic. Elsewhere, “Isn’t It Midnight,” McVie’s co-write with Buckingham and her then-husband Eddy Quintela, seems an inversion of the values of “Everywhere,” a severe ’80s guitar rock song that gets consumed by a greater, more unnerving force by its chorus, as if it’s succumbing to a conspiratorial dread. “Do you remember the face of a pretty girl?” McVie sings, and Buckingham echoes her in an unfeeling monotone (“the face of a pretty girl”) while behind him synths chime in a moving constellation, UFOs pulsing in the dark.
This is the essence of Tango in the Night: something falling apart but held together by an unearthly glow. More of a mirage than Mirage, it is an immaculate study in denial (its most enduring hit revolves around McVie asking someone to tell her “sweet little lies”). It’s a form of dreaming where you could touch the petals of a flower and feel something softer than the idea of softness. In this way, Tango seems to emerge less from Buckingham’s pure will and imagination than from a question that haunts art in general: How can one make the unreal real, and the real unreal?
The remaster of Tango in the Night isn’t as topographically startling as last year’s Mirage, where new details seemed to rise out of the mix as if in a relief sculpture; it sounded good on CD in 1987. The reissue does sound warmer and brighter, and the instruments feel less digitally combined, which lifts background elements to the surface, like the seasick drift of the bass notes in “Caroline” and the coordinated staccato harmonies in the title track. The reissue also includes two discs of b-sides, demos, and extended remixes, several of which were previously unreleased. “Special Kind of Love” is described as a demo but sounds like a completely developed Buckingham song, gentle and simple, with every edge expressively filigreed; it could’ve been a potential second sequel to “You and I.” “Seven Wonders” appears in an earlier, more relaxed arrangement, with Lindsey’s guitar warmly swanning between the notes that would eventually be reconstructed in perfect digital isolation by a synthesizer.
The demos also reveal the ways in which the songs could fold into and out of each other. On the “Tango in the Night” demo you can hear Buckingham, at the edge of every chorus, begin to invent the trembling choral part that opens “Caroline.” Nicks’ eventual solo track “Juliet” is present in two of its primordial forms—as the instrumental “Book of Miracles” (credited to both Buckingham and Nicks) and as a five-minute “run-through.” The run-through is especially curious, reducing “Book of Miracles” to a formulaic blues-rock over which Nicks’ voice produces a just-barely musical static, full of wobbles and distortions and exclamations. After the take she says, ecstatically, “I thought that was wonderful! I didn’t play! I did not play because I am so smart!”
Nicks exhibits a strange, dissonant giddiness in this moment that isn’t present in any of the band member’s memories of the recording process. At the time, in his interview with the Times, Buckingham imaginatively described Tango in the Night as a restorative process. “This album is as much about healing our relationships as Rumours was about dissension and pain within the group,” he said. “The songs look back over a period of time that in retrospect seems almost dreamlike.” Twenty-six years later, Buckingham summarized the experience to Uncut in more severe terms: “When I was done with the record, I said, ‘Oh my God. That was the worst recording experience of my life.’”
The jealousy and resentment he felt toward Nicks for the success she experienced in her solo career, and the prevailing feeling that his architectural work on the band’s records went unnoticed and unappreciated, had built to a flashpoint. Later in 1987, the band met up in anticipation of the promotional tour for Tango, for which they had already secured dates and signed contracts. At the meeting, Buckingham announced he was quitting the band. “I ﬂew off of the couch and across the room to seriously attack him,” Nicks told Classic Rock in 2013. “…I’m not real scary but I grabbed him which almost got me killed.” They spilled out of McVie’s house and into the street. Buckingham ran after Nicks and threw her up against a car. She “screamed horrible obscenities” at him, and he walked away, from the moment and the band. What’s left, after these harsh fragments of reality are swept away, is Tango in the Night: a remarkably complete album, a lavish garden growing out of negative space. Just a dream.
Brad Nelson / Pitchfork / March 11, 2017