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Christine McVie brought romantic optimism to Fleetwood Mac

Christine McVie in 1969, just a year before officially joining Fleetwood Mac and forever making hearts melt.
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Christine McVie in 1969, just a year before officially joining Fleetwood Mac and forever making hearts melt.

The song "Everywhere," a frothy pop hit found on Fleetwood Mac's Tango in the Night that's been covered by Vampire Weekend and Paramore, might be Christine McVie's most optimistic moment. As spine-tingling synths and undulating rhythms swirl around like glittery fairy dust, McVie, who died Nov. 30 at the age of 79 after a short illness, raves about a partner, alternating between wanting to shout about her new love and being left speechless by their beauty. "I want to be with you everywhere," she coos atop a slick of glacial harmonies. It's that extra word that makes a difference. She doesn't just want to be with someone, in general — she wants to be with them everywhere. The first points to making a connection; the second implies deeper pride and commitment, and being all-in with your heart.

As keyboardist, sometimes lead vocalist and frequent principal songwriter for Fleetwood Mac from 1971's Future Games onward, McVie consistently embraced this type of deep, romantic optimism, comparing love to sunshine (1972's "Spare Me a Little of Your Love"), documenting flashes of unabashed flirting (1982's "Hold Me") and extolling the virtues of true love (1995's "I Do").

Such precision was a hallmark of this West Midlands-raised musician, whose father taught violin and grandfather played the organ at Westminster Abbey. Long before "Everywhere," McVie had been fond of stretching out words and syllables to emphasize poignant themes — as heard on 1975's slinky "Warm Ways," which amplifies "dream," "morning" and "light" to illuminate the coziness of sleeping by a beloved. McVie's busy, bluesy keyboard style, informed by piano lessons but also Fats Domino, Otis Spann and Freddie King, paired well with a soulful alto.

McVie's talent coalesced perhaps most strikingly on the tender piano ballad "Songbird," a highlight of Rumours. Heartfelt and gentle, the song describes the solace of being with someone whose love just feels right. "Songbird" was a piece dusted with magic: Written during a middle-of-the-night session, it was more like she channeled it from another dimension, as she once described to The Guardian. "I sang it from beginning to end: everything. I can't tell you quite how I felt; it was as if I'd been visited – it was a very spiritual thing."

It's a notable reminder that Fleetwood Mac's catalog isn't all bitter and beautiful breakup songs, though romantic tension will always be central to the band's appeal (and something of an albatross, too). On one hand, the band's complicated entanglements and tenuous relations led to creative genius, as with Rumours. More than 35 years after its release, the album remains an astonishing sales juggernaut, in no small part because of its nuanced depictions of stormy relationships. The songs function like conversations in a crowded room; Lindsey Buckingham tells one-time partner Stevie Nicks she can "go your own way" and "call it another lonely day," while Nicks in turn volleys back, "Listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness."

On the other hand, Fleetwood Mac's narrative is still dominated by the push-and-pull between Buckingham and Nicks, even though the couple broke up in the mid-'70s. Despite the passage of time, their up-and-down relationship remains a subject of fascination, most recently when personal disagreements played out in the press after Buckingham was reportedly fired from the group in 2018.

Not that McVie was immune to the intra-band romantic tumult: Then named Christine Perfect, she married bassist John McVie in 1968 and joined Fleetwood Mac a few years later. The couple divorced in 1976, and their post-breakup years dovetailed with the band's rise to superstardom, which McVie acknowledged could be difficult. "Both Stevie and I, we were married to Fleetwood Mac," she told Guitar World in 1997, as quoted in the 2016 book Fleetwood Mac on Fleetwood Mac: Interviews and Encounters. "That was what we did and it was a harsh marriage." McVie did remarry for real — to Eddy Quintela, her co-writer on multiple songs from 1987 onward — but that marriage also eventually ended.

Despite the real-life romantic disappointments, McVie's music wasn't diaristic. Speaking to The Guardian earlier this year, she was ambiguous about her inspirations: "Most of my songs are based on truth and real people, but a lot of them are just fantasies, really." That perhaps explains why McVie's songs maintain so much optimism despite lyrics that often express uncertainty.

Her narrators often aren't sure where they stand in a relationship, or put up with challenging behaviors: indifference, moodiness, emotional distance. On Tusk's brooding "Brown Eyes," the protagonist reveals her desire for someone right away, in the first verse. Only later do doubts creep in about their long-term chances: "And are you just another liar?"

The main characters of two other Tusk highlights — the languid, twangy album-opener "Over & Over" and the rocker "Think About Me" — ask for clarity point-blank. The latter's narrator justifies the ask by pointing out how much leeway she gives the other person: "I don't hold you down / And maybe that's why you're around."

But McVie's songs saw that admitting vulnerability could also be strength. Even if a relationship wasn't perfect, better days might still be around the corner. Her protagonists might be insecure, but they didn't come across as meek — as on 1975's "Over My Head," in which things aren't necessarily going well with a moody partner: "Sometimes I can't help but feel / That I'm wasting all of my time" — and they weren't afraid to assert themselves. On the piano-driven "Prove Your Love," she explicitly says: "If you want to please me, baby / Then don't act like a child." There's a pragmatism at the heart of her quest for silver linings.

In interviews, McVie frequently downplayed or understated her approach to songwriting. "I'm a pretty basic love-song writer," she told Guitar World. "Pretty basic relationship writer. I'd be the last one to say it for myself, but I've been told that I have a way of saying the obvious in a non-obvious way." McVie knew her strengths and stuck to them. "I stayed with songs that are simple and unpretentious," she told the Los Angeles Times while promoting her second solo album, a 1984 self-titled affair. "That's what I do best."

That consistency grounded Fleetwood Mac as the band's music evolved from snaky blues jams to polished pop-rock and into more experimental territory, before settling into an adult contemporary groove. McVie's melodies stood out like polished gems sifted out of an archaeological dig; early compositions like the pastoral folk of "Show Me a Smile" or the barnstorming boogie "Just Crazy Love" gave way to sleeker, polished fare on the Buckingham-less 1990 LP Behind the Mask and Nicks-free 1995 album Time. The former's title track, written by McVie, is especially haunting in the way it calls someone out for their two-facedness and says in no uncertain terms there are no second chances.

"We all just complement each other, because we're such different writers," McVie told me in 2017, in reference to Fleetwood Mac. "My contribution is the romance and the warmth. The love songs."

McVie only released three solo albums in her career (though earlier this year she released a compilation, Songbird, which featured two unreleased solo songs) and ended up taking a 16-year break from Fleetwood Mac, between 1998 and 2014. The time away rekindled McVie's enthusiasm for music. Decades after joining Fleetwood Mac, she never lost the romantic notion of being in a band. "Carnival Begin," recorded for her joint 2017 album with Lindsey Buckingham, details her feelings about jumping back into the chaos of touring and the Fleetwood Mac machine: "I want it all / All the sparkling things / A new merry go round."

McVie believed in true love, but she also believed in Fleetwood Mac. Talking to Rolling Stone in 1997, she shared one potential inspiration she thought of while conjuring "Songbird": "I think I just was thinking of all the band members – 'God, wouldn't it be nice just to be happy?' " That insight brings new meaning to one of the most touching lines on "Songbird": "I wish you all the love in the world / But most of all, I wish it from myself."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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