From a commercial standpoint, Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage was an unqualified success. Released in June 1982, the record went platinum by the end of the year and spent five weeks atop the Billboard album charts. Mirage also spawned two major hit singles—the piano-spun, Christine McVie co-written “Hold Me” and the Stevie Nicks-penned, mystical twirl “Gypsy”—and a solid-selling U.S. tour. From a career-trajectory standpoint, Mirage was also a triumph. The album helped steady Fleetwood Mac’s ship after the experimental curveball of 1979’s landmark double album Tusk, and ensured the band eased into the ’80s nearly seamlessly.
“Mirage was just more of a traditional record,” Ken Caillat, who co-produced and co-engineered that album, tells The A.V. Club. Gardens & Villa multi-instrumentalist Adam Rasmussen, whose band covered “Gypsy” on the 2012 Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute To Fleetwood Mac, observes that Mirage “feels really sweet, lush, nostalgic, soft.” “The rock colors that are present on [1977’s] Rumours and more experimental aspects of Tusk are nonexistent, or at least very subdued, on Mirage,” he says. “I like that it is subtle. [Lindsey] Buckingham’s guitar work is really delicate.”
As with most things involving the notoriously fractured (and occasionally fractious) Fleetwood Mac, however, the narrative around Mirage isn’t quite straightforward—and separating facts from mythology is a little more challenging. For example, contrary to popular belief, Caillat points out that Mirage and Tusk aren’t that far apart sonically. (He would know: He also co-produced and co-engineered Tusk and Rumours.) “Lindsey had decided to be different [on Tusk],” Caillat says. “He basically just wanted it to be dirty—he wanted to see if he could paint himself into a corner and get out of the corner. But yet on the songs [written by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie], he did some of the most beautiful guitar work. If you just listen to Tusk without any of Lindsey’s songs, it sounds almost identical to Mirage.”
Those aren’t the only parallels: Although Tusk is known for its unrestrained sound, Mirage as well boasts that versatile, anything-goes spirit. “Can’t Go Back” starts with a burst of whimsical, pitter-pattering instrumentation that’s not far off from today’s cheerful indie pop; plush harmonies blossom in the background of “Book Of Love”; and the soulful “Only Over You” feels like an old-fashioned torch song. And although Buckingham’s Mirage songs aren’t as off-kilter as his Tusk compositions—there’s nothing close to the discord of “The Ledge” or post-punk punctures of “Not That Funny”—the acoustic-driven, hopscotch-speed “Eyes Of The World” is plenty abstract.
“It seems like in this era people were making albums that felt really specific and cohesive—almost like conceptual albums that followed a specific guideline,” Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino tells The A.V. Club. “Mirage doesn’t do that. You go from having a mid-tempo ballad about being crazy only over one person, ‘Only Over You,’ to a total Lindsey Buckingham-centric ‘weird’ pop song about New York, ‘Empire State.’ That’s what makes Mirage such a flawless record: It defies expectations.”
Still, it’s impossible to listen to Mirage and not think that it was a reaction to Tusk. “I feel like [Mirage] was them at a crossroads,” singer-songwriter/producer Butch Walker, an avowed fan of both Fleetwood Mac and Buckingham, tells The A.V. Club. “Tusk was such an experimental, ‘fuck you’ record, more so from Lindsey, of wanting to do the opposite everybody was expecting him to do. When they put out ‘Hold Me,’ it was like, ‘This is straight-up pop.’ [Mirage] is like, ‘I want to show everybody that we can be as pop as the next person—and be even better at it.’
“It was almost like it was a submission, that record—[Fleetwood Mac was] finally submitting to each other and the pop machine,” he adds. “But the beauty of it is—even them at their most blatantly pop, accessible—it’s better than most people’s best, because the talent involved in that band was ridiculous.”
After the Tusk touring cycle wrapped up, the members of Fleetwood Mac took a break from each other and explored other creative outlets; Mirage emerged after they reconvened, armed with new perspectives and experiences. “Mirage was a great thing for us to try to come back to,” Caillat says. “We tried to make it a second Rumours. So you’ll notice, comparing [Mirage] to Tusk, it’s much more mainstream than Rumours.” To recapture the spirit of those pre-fame days, Fleetwood Mac and the studio team attempted to replicate the close-knit vibe of the Rumours recording sessions. “We thought living together like we did during the Rumours album might make more sense,” Caillat explains. Initially, everyone hunkered down at an 18th-century French chateau, Château D’Hérouville, the same place where Elton John made his 1972 LP Honky Château. (“It almost felt like a castle in some ways, and supposedly it was haunted,” Caillat recalls of the locale.) To finish Mirage, the band and studio team then returned to their home base of California.
Still, Fleetwood Mac circa Mirage wasn’t the same group it was during Rumours. “By that time, the band were all superstars and very much full of themselves, as all of us were,” Caillat says. The members were enjoying the finer things in life—fancy food and booze, new houses, luxury cars—and liberally indulging in illicit substances. “Everybody would show up to do the record, like late afternoon, we’d start working,” Caillat says. “And then, of course, there was a lot more drugs for Mirage than any other record.” (The indulgences weren’t necessarily a creative detriment, however, Caillat stresses. “When you lock yourself in the studio for a year, you think you’re going to discipline yourself and keep working,” he says. “But sooner or later, somebody is going to bring a six pack of beer in, and you’re going to put your feet up on the table and have a beer and relax. Really, the drugs were nothing more than that. They were just a form of relaxation.”)
Plus, in the time between Tusk and Mirage, various band members had been making their own music, with varying degrees of success. Mick Fleetwood traveled to Ghana to record his solo LP The Visitor while both Nicks and Buckingham also released solo albums. The former’s 1981 LP, Bella Donna, reached No. 1 and featured smash duets with Tom Petty (“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”) and Don Henley (“Leather And Lace”), as well as the electric “Edge Of Seventeen.” Buckingham’s own 1981 effort, Law And Order, launched only one top-10 hit (“Trouble,” which featured Fleetwood) and peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard 200 list. In the case of Nicks and Buckingham, these solo excursions had an impact on Mirage “only in the competitive side of each of them with each other,” Caillat says. “Stevie did a solo album, and it [did really well]. She would end up rubbing it in Lindsey’s nose and then Lindsey never had really good solo records, so then probably he would try harder to make this record more of a statement.”
Where Mirage is concerned, that doesn’t necessarily explain Buckingham’s New York City mash note “Empire State” or the skeletal (some might say half-finished) anguish he conveys on “Eyes Of The World.” However, he’s far more effective on “Oh Diane,” which laments love’s ephemeral nature, and the clever self-pity (and anti-deity) vibe of “Book Of Love.” Yet Mirage’s tone is set by Nicks’ poetic remembrances (“Straight Back”) and McVie’s straight-up emotional vulnerability (“Wish You Were Here”). In fact, the former’s “Gypsy” and its elaborate backstory—it’s a nostalgic remembrance of her pre-fame days living in San Francisco—has become the stuff of legend.
Cosentino characterizes Mirage’s overarching lyrical theme as “the past,” an assessment with which Rasmussen agrees. “For [Fleetwood Mac] there was probably a sense of returning, or homecoming, maybe the familiarity of writing and playing together again,” he says. “A year and a half is a long time to not be working together creatively. To me, this record does feel especially reflective for the Fleetwood Mac catalog. The themes of relationships and intimacy that we all love from Fleetwood Mac lyrics are still present, [but] the storytelling is heavily reflective, memory-driven, nostalgic, almost dreamlike. It doesn’t have much of the angsty vibes of Rumours, or the far-outness of Tusk.
“The record almost leads you on, instead of taking you home,” he adds with a laugh. “Gives you moments instead of just handing it to you. You have to walk through it slowly to see its brilliance, in my opinion.”
Within Fleetwood Mac’s canon, Mirage’s cultural influence and legacy does feel subtle and less defined. It’s obvious that the drama suffusing 1977’s Rumours helps that record endure, for example, and that Tusk’s deliberate weirdness makes it an object of fascination. Even 1987’s gauzier, more commercial Tango In The Night has become an inspiration, thanks to the popularity of ’80s pop’s electronic production and keyboard-driven sound. But Mirage is free of gimmicks or backstory; its defining quality is its songcraft and music. That’s not necessarily sensational or attention-grabbing—but it does make for an album that’s aged very, very well.
“By that time, we knew how to make a good record,” Caillat says. “Rumours, I was completely surprised. Everybody thought that we would be so confident that we knew we had a smash-hit record. But we were so tired and really had taken the songs such a long distance from where they started that it was like, we didn’t know. But on Tusk, we knew [McVie and Nicks’] songs were great. And Lindsey, he knew enough not to screw around with those.
“When Mirage came around, all the songs just went back to… really, if you listen to [Nicks and Buckingham’s] first solo album, [1973’s] Buckingham Nicks, or the first album that they did with Fleetwood Mac [1975’s self-titled LP], Mirage is a little bit more polished, a little bit more aggressive, drums and bass, than those first albums. They kind of returned to their roots.”
In the case of Nicks’ country-folk warble “That’s Alright,” there’s a good explanation for that: The song is a holdover from Buckingham Nicks. Yet Mirage was clearly not a rehash of the past—perhaps because the three main songwriters had grown into their strengths and, as a result, had become more distinctive. “One thing I love about all Fleetwood Mac records is the fact that they always have such a sprinkling of different vibes because of the fact there are three different songwriters and singers,” Cosentino says. “With Mirage, it’s much more out in the open. On this record, we get to hear really specific Stevie, Lindsey, and Christine songs—by this time, it was so easy to spot which song belonged to who, they all started to develop their own niche, and a songwriting style and lyrical content that was so specific to themselves.
“That’s something people really respected and still respect about Fleetwood Mac: their ability to stay true to themselves, regardless of all the bullshit they went through as a band,” she adds.
That last point is important: Mirage also demonstrated the almost supernatural strength of Fleetwood Mac’s internal musical equilibrium, which survived despite the band’s interpersonal turbulence and separate endeavors. More specifically, Mirage underscored how this improbable stability gave the band enough confidence to grow and change, which helped it stay relevant in the ’80s and beyond. Classic rockers were notoriously clumsy when attempting to embrace modern trends or technology—think about how many of these bands and artists shoehorned synthesizers into their sound or looked ridiculous in music videos. But perhaps because Fleetwood Mac was used to being chameleonic—the group had an established career and sizable body of work as a blues-based band before Nicks and Buckingham even joined—the band didn’t flinch at progress.
Nicks’ new wave-leaning “Straight Back” boasted contemporary-sounding keyboards, while Fleetwood Mac embraced the power of MTV early on, and made an elaborate, film-shot music video for “Gypsy” with noted director Russell Mulcahy. (Naturally, the clip received its world premiere on the channel.) Mirage illustrated Fleetwood Mac’s unparalleled ability to balance looking back and moving forward: The band’s music may have sounded timeless, but it wasn’t frozen in time.
“I like that they were able to adapt with new keyboard sounds and stuff like that—but no matter what, it never sounded distorted,” Walker says. “It never sounded like KISS doing the gratuitous disco record when disco was hot. Or the Stones doing the gratuitous disco record when disco was hot. This was early on for new wave, obviously, which was just kind of starting to happen and bubble up around ’82. They tapped into a little bit of that future sound that they finally probably were hearing in their head—and maybe a lot of underground bands were doing. That, to me, just kind of shows how brilliant they are, because they were able to [evolve]. It didn’t sound forced or trendy.”
To Cosentino, that Mirage was both cohesive and diverse is just as significant, and one of the biggest ways she sees the LP influencing modern music. “I think to see a record do well commercially and not have it stick to one formula was probably very influential to a lot of people then—and, to me, it still is,” she says. “It makes me feel like it would be okay for me or any other artist to make an album that doesn’t feel like it sticks to one specific vibe. I feel like a lot of artists in pop music do that now, and it works really well.
“We see and hear so many albums now that are all over the place, but in a good way—and they work regardless if the opening song is a crazy, Top 40-sounding pop anthem that fades into an R&B-style ballad,” she adds. “Bands and artists take risks now; they seemingly say ‘fuck you’ to this idea a record has to have the same vibe throughout and they just do what they want. Mirage is very ‘fuck you’ when it comes to following a strategy. It doesn’t follow one—that’s its main strategy.”
Cosentino is an outspoken Fleetwood Mac loyalist; in fact, she says Mirage is her favorite LP by the band. In general, Walker admits he’s “stolen from the handbook of Lindsey many, many times”—specifically Buckingham’s 12-string sounds and unorthodox fingerpicking arpeggiations—in his own career. “Definitely my records and for productions I’ve done for other people, I’ve snuck that shit in there—whether or not it was fashionable, I still did it,” he says. (In fact, portions of Walker’s forthcoming album, Stay Gold, absolutely feature the kind of forceful, strident acoustic guitar work for which Buckingham is known.)
But Fleetwood Mac is now more fashionable than ever. Walker name-checks Haim and Jenny Lewis (as well as the latter’s former band, Rilo Kiley) as modern purveyors of the Fleetwood Mac sound, while Rasmussen has seen greater acceptance of—if not enthusiasm for—Mirage-style tones and approach. “Soft rock is back—alive and well,” he says. “My DJ friends are definitely revisiting this era.” A typical playlist when he goes out, he says, might include “Gypsy,” followed immediately by Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line,” the Bee Gees’ “More Than A Woman,” and Buckingham’s “Trouble.”
From a songwriting standpoint, Rasmussen has also observed a resurgence in the type of music Fleetwood Mac popularized. “The music I’m hearing currently at shows is also a nod to some Fleetwood Mac sentiments and stylings,” he says. “In 2016, we’re moving past the electronic fever, whether partially or exclusively. Many of the musicians that I know and work with are returning to writing song songs [and] stories. I’m seeing a return to minimal production and a delicate marriage of acoustic and electronic sound sources, I think because it feels good [and] feels real. I’m very happy that these influences have come to the surface again.”
Post-Mirage, Caillat bowed out of working with Fleetwood Mac. However, he recently did a 5.1 remix of the album for Rhino Records’ upcoming deluxe reissue, an experience he says was “really, really enjoyable. There’s some honest, really honest songs; there’s some great sounds to the record. We really were focused. And we were making a record that sounded great.
“Fleetwood Mac was always great at putting melody lines in,” he continues. “Particularly Lindsey would put in these lines you wouldn’t think were necessary in a song, but they were something in the background that were so many colors. We had layers and layers of colors. Now that I was able to take the 24 channels and spread it around five speakers. You hear backgrounds that you didn’t hear that were buried in layers of stereo. You can actually hear melody lines and hear guitar lines and keyboard lines that you might not have been aware of in the compacted stereo mix.”
However, Caillat also notes this depth was always present in Mirage—and it’s a trait Cosentino particularly finds makes this LP a hidden gem. “Mirage is like the outsiders’ Fleetwood Mac album,” she says. “It’s the album that I kind of feel like only true, die-hard Fleetwood Mac fans really have a special place for in their hearts. If you don’t ‘get’ Mirage I think that’s okay, but for the people that do ‘get’ Mirage I think we can all agree how special it is.
“There is so much going on on that record, but all the songs work together,” she adds. “It doesn’t feel like too much of one thing; it feels like the perfect amount of everything.”