ROCK ON, ANCIENT QUEEN…
he sixty-two-year-old singer and songwriter Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac—though she is now capable of eclipsing the band, which first enlisted her as an afterthought—has just released her seventh solo studio album, “In Your Dreams,” her first in ten years. These facts speak to the past, and so do her recent live shows. Audiences have been given a reassuring series of hits: “Gold Dust Woman,” “Landslide,” “Rhiannon” (for which she wears extended chiffon sleeves that she attaches to her jacket for that song, and only that song), and “Edge of Seventeen.” But she barely included anything from “In Your Dreams” on her recent dates with Rod Stewart, and for a very modern reason. “The new album wasn’t out,” she said. “I didn’t want it playing all over YouTube.”
Nicks is like a USB thumb drive in lace, a small package containing a variety of pop-culture personality tropes. She has been the regulator of weight; the titrator of substances; the veteran of a love triangle; the female artist who escaped the long shadow of a male collaborator; the commercial artist who passed through wildly different stations of commerce; and the canny performer whose utilitarian decisions and whimsical tastes became the totems and scripture of a tribe. She survived both the corrosive lift of cocaine and the lead apron of Klonopin.
Before Fleetwood Mac, in the early seventies, Nicks was half of Buckingham Nicks, a duo she founded in Los Angeles with her then boyfriend, the songwriter and singer Lindsey Buckingham. Fleetwood Mac, an already established British blues band, discovered Buckingham in 1974, when the drummer Mick Fleetwood came to Los Angeles in search of a new member. He heard a song called “Frozen Love,” from the duo’s sole (and unsuccessful) album. Impressed by the guitar work, he sought out Buckingham, who agreed to join Fleetwood’s group only if his partner came, too.
In the process, a moderately well-regarded English rock outfit switched continents, culturally, and recorded three albums that helped to define Los Angeles: “Fleetwood Mac” (confusingly, the second of their self-titled albums), “Rumours” (the spelling still says England), and “Tusk.” The young woman who tagged along turned out to be the author of the band’s No. 1 hit “Dreams.” (The group was not short on good material in the seventies; “Rumours” is still one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, and last week an entire episode of “Glee” was devoted to the songs on it.) As a producer, Buckingham helped create this new L.A. sound: drums so flat that they seemed two-dimensional, an evenness of tone that was golden and disorienting, like warm apple juice, and an ecstatic, unpredictable series of group harmonies that nodded to L.A.’s previous monarch, Brian Wilson, while quietly making his style look naïve. The look, however, belonged to Nicks. And though she is often associated with an otherworldly bent, she chose her outfit for mundane reasons.
“We were touring the first album, and I was wearing my street clothes,” she told me. “It was terrible. We started playing songs from ‘Rumours,’ and got booed off. People wanted what they knew, so I decided to just choose a uniform, which was sort of like choosing a set list. It means I can leave all that vanity in the bathroom and concentrate on the music. It’s comforting.” With her longtime designer and friend Margi Kent, Nicks came up with the outfit that is mimicked at tribute events like New York’s “Night of a Thousand Stevies.” (Her faithful are catholic in the periods of Stevie that they choose to emulate.)
Before the revamped Fleetwood Mac toured again, in 1976, Nicks had secured her core components: a black chiffon handkerchief dress, a Jantzen leotard, a small black jacket, “clunky suède platform heels,” and a top hat she found in a Buffalo antique store while shopping with her bandmate Christine McVie. “And ribbons,” Nicks added. “Ribbons on the tambourine and the microphones. Steven Tyler admits he got that from me, though he does something fabulous with it. Also, in the late seventies, I did the ruched pants, and Prince has said he got that from me. I didn’t wear those for long, though, so maybe I should bring them back.”
Through the many iterations of Fleetwood Mac—Buckingham has quit and rejoined the band—and through Nicks’s largely successful solo career, her art has rarely mimicked the flowchart of her personal life. Her voice has steely sides, but its center is worn and approachable, like suède. Her ability to apply vibrato in small, brief doses is a marvel of control, and, for all her twirling shawls and infinitely girlie flourishes, her dominant mode of singing is conversational and even. She always had the range to do soaring runs or dive-bombing accents, but often avoided them. Today, years of various physical struggles seem to have dropped a few notes from the higher end of her range and added more rasp to an already ragged tone, but the glint and power are still there.
She credits this strength to training since 1997 with the voice coach Steve Real, who taught her a thirty-seven-minute routine that she performs before every live show.
Nicks’ mode of songwriting is as concrete as her outfits are diaphanous. Her lyrics are plainspoken, generally narrative, and lower on symbology than her fans seem to think. Even though “Moonlight,” the first track on the new album, was inspired by the “Twilight” series of books and movies, vampirism isn’t the pull—it’s just the usual story of a coupling that is too logistically complicated to pull off.
“In Your Dreams” was written in large part with Dave Stewart, a songwriter and producer long saddled with the same kind of band legacy that Nicks carries around. (He is still known as half of Eurythmics, despite having written and produced plenty of other albums.) Several of Nicks’s collaborators on “In Your Dreams” got their start around the same time Nicks did, including the guitarist Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Except for a minor keyboard fillip at the opening of “Everybody Loves You,” which recalls the main motif of Usher’s “Yeah!,” almost any song on this album could have been released during the late eighties or early nineties. There is no apparent concern with genre or marketing. Nicks is a durable enough brand that she has been allowed to release an album that immediately leaps behind the fence of the millennium.
With a few florid exceptions—“Moonlight” being one of the less felicitous ones—“In Your Dreams” stays wide awake and earnestly direct. “New Orleans,” co-written with Neale Heywood, is a slow, insistent number that shows how little Nicks is interested in bravado or mystery. The song’s chorus is adorably literal: “I wanna get a room in New Orleans / I wanna sing / In the streets of the French Quarter / I wanna dress up. / I wanna wear feathers and lace / I wanna brush by Anne Rice / And go down Bourbon Street.” Who admits to playing dress-up and wanting to meet a famous author? Someone not particularly nervous about her legacy.
In an art form obsessed with aging and relevance, “In Your Dreams” is notably different from other albums—good-natured, and impressive for how little straining or fussing is involved. It’s easy to believe that Nicks and her crew had dinner together every night. She says the mood around the recording reminded her of Paris in the twenties or San Francisco in the late sixties. I am not sure anything of equal moment was afoot in the studio, but there’s no reason to be cynical about a figure of American pop being in fighting trim.
If you’re within reasonable distance of a Nicks show, go. You’ll likely find that the small woman in the big shoes and the scarves is already in your head. You may simply have forgotten why.’ ♢
(Sources: The New Yorker; Google Images; GoldDustStevie/Tumblr)