Lindsey Buckingham Peels It Down to the Essentials

Music Features Lindsey Buckingham
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Lindsey Buckingham’s life has changed dramatically since the release of his last solo album, Out of the Cradle, in 1992. First, he returned to Fleetwood Mac after a nine-year break, then in 1998 he married for the first time (at age 48), and now he’s a father of three. What hasn’t changed is the impulse that’s driven Buckingham to create fiercely unconventional music over the years, starting with Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 oddball classic, Tusk, and further revealed over three adventurous solo albums. This rigorously idiosyncratic work has made Buckingham a one-of-a-kind cult hero, even as the indelible body of work he fashioned with Fleetwood Mac has turned him into a rock icon.

But until piecing together Under the Skin, his sublime, fourth solo album, Buckingham had been blocked from completing a project under his own name. During the mid ’90s, he’d recorded a sizable bunch of new songs with Warner Bros. staff producer Rob Cavallo, but before he could finish them, his former bandmates and emissaries from the label joined forces in what he laughingly calls an “intervention,” resulting in his rejoining Fleetwood Mac. After the 1997 tour (documented on the album The Dance), the pressure mounted for a new Fleetwood Mac studio album, and Buckingham’s precious work-in-progress was cannibalized for 2003’s Say You Will.

Undeterred, the resilient artist started planning his next solo project. For Under the Skin, he decided to continue developing the instrumental premise he’d foreshadowed on the ’97 reunion tour with a nimble-fingered solo-acoustic performance of his song “Big Love.” “I wanted to trim away as much as I could,” he explains, “and yet not have it sound like an ‘unplugged’ record, but have it feel like it was sonically sophisticated and surreal.”

During Fleetwood Mac’s most recent tour, in 2004, Buckingham made fruitful use of the endless hours spent in hotel rooms between shows—writing, recording and mixing several thematically related new songs. Using only his acoustic guitar, an old Korg 16-track portable recorder, a microphone and a Roland guitar delay (to give his vocals a dreamlike quality), Buckingham concocted virtual pocket symphonies, thanks to his celebrated dexterity and acute sense of time. What’s more, these intricate yet intimate soundscapes seemed to naturally cohere with Buckingham’s very personal subject matter.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
The act of writing these songs proved therapeutic. “You can examine your pluses and minuses with a little more clarity and put the past in a healthy context, which—believe me—took a long time to do,” he says, opting for the protection of the second person. “You can also reflect on the irony of the fact that what you are doing and the motivation for why you’re still driven to do it are based in ancient history. You still want to follow the path, but you recognize that those urges are less appropriate for things that are in the present moment. And how you strike a balance between all that and something far more important, which is family.”

When he got back to L.A. after the tour, Buckingham fired up his home studio and continued down the same musical and thematic path while surrounded by his wife and kids. Out of that experience came the album’s scene-setting opening song, “Not Too Late,” which introduces the parallel themes of reaching outward and looking inward in the context of being silently observed by his curious offspring.

“In the bridge section,” says Buckingham, “I wrote, ‘My children look away, they don’t know what to say.’ Kids are so observant and intuitive, and there were times when they walked into the studio when I was working at home and wondered, ‘What’s he doing?’ At a very young age they can recognize the self-absorption of it, and possibly even the narcissism of it, and there have been times where they seem to be thinking, ‘Hmm—what’s that all about?’”

FAMILY MATTERS
Six of the 11 songs reference children, and he name-checks his two daughters and son in “It Was You,” a touchingly straightforward expression of late-coming fulfillment. Similarly, in the enchanting “Show You How,” over a drum machine, electric bass and his syncopated backing vocals, Buckingham portrays his former self as a “madman out on a bad-man route / Looking for paradise,” only to be redeemed by the soft words of the woman who will change his life: “She says slow down, baby, slow down now … I’ll show you how.” And in the final verse of the closing “Juniper” (he refers to it as the album’s “Love Boat coda”) he offers, “If we forgive ourselves we might be whole,” while playing open chords with such life-affirming forcefulness that the sound coming out of the speakers will blow back your hair. Throughout the aptly titled Under the Skin, Buckingham eradicates the distance between process and content, between art and life.

“All the prototypes for rock are young and rebellious, so you find a lot of people who get to a certain age and try to be someone they’re not,” Buckingham points out. “I just don’t think anyone ever thinks of rock ’n’ roll as having a valid period in which you could come to a point where you are comfortable with the perspective and the experience that you’ve gained and try to put it out there without masking it. So I felt like this was a really true presentation of someone who is 56 years old, and thinking not that it’s a bad thing but actually a plus. And the fact that the record is all one thing, with no lead guitar or drums, seems to work with that idea.”

The intersection of these musical and psychological vectors makes Under the Skin a “boutique album”—in other words, one with limited commercial potential—but that designation hardly diminishes its validity or significance. This is no vanity project; it’s a candid, insightful self-portrait of the artist as a middle-aged striver for aesthetic and emotional authenticity.