Is Fleetwood Mac's 'Penguin' As Bad As the Critics Said in 1973?
The band's transitional album is celebrating a fiftieth anniversary, so I decided to give it a first time deep dive and re-evaluation.
Last month, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast fame tossed this little nugget to the Twitter wolves:
I love Zauner, but a few things here make me scratch my head. We’re not talking about The Beatles today, but Revolver is most certainly not a snob pick. It’s constantly ranked as the best pop album of all time, and if not the top spot, almost always in the top ten. I’m also genuinely curious about what album beats it amongst The Beatles fandom that gives a shit about this? Sgt. Pepper’s? Abbey Road?1
Another piece I don’t understand is comparing Revolver to Tusk. If Tusk compares to anything in The Beatles catalog, it’s The White Album. They’re both double albums stuffed full of ego (and some might say filler), recorded during a real mess of a time for relationships between band members. I also don’t find loving Tusk to be a snobbish stance. I know Zauner is comparing it to Fleetwood Mac and Target shelf mainstay, Rumours, two albums representing the height of Fleetwood Mac’s popularity when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the long-running chameleonic blues group.
But as a massive Fleetwood Mac fan, there’s something to be said for the idea that those two phenomenal albums may represent their peak commercial, but I could never hear “Landslide” again and be okay. Songs we’ve heard on the radio for forty-five years fill both records, ande I just want to listen to something else from their massive catalog. I do find myself spinning Tusk more than those other two records these days because the mess intrigues me, and every song belongs on that double set. Let’s face it, though - the Mirage and Tango in the Night era is my favorite Mac era. Sorry, not sorry, internet.
All of this is to say it’s time to dig into another Fleetwood Mac album that absolutely no one says is their best work. In the early months of the year, I’m drawn toward the records celebrating their fiftieth anniversary, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s debut album in January. Some I know up and down (like Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.), but others allow me to deep dive into them for the first or second time - since 1973 was a decade before my time, it also allows me to listen with a modern context. What music came after this artist? Is it timeless or a dated mess?
While I would count 1972’s Bare Trees in my top five Fleetwood Mac albums,2 I’m admittedly a little green when it comes to the three albums between Bare Trees and when Buckingham/Nicks joined the group three years later. So when I saw Penguin, a record often considered one of their worst, was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, I felt its pull to dig into it for the first time.
Penguin was Fleetwood Mac’s most significant success in the United States yet, entering the Top 50 on the Billboard charts. At the same time, reviews were poor to average, and Christine McVie once described the album as “weird.”
So, knowing what was to come for Fleetwood Mac, where does Penguin belong in their catalog? Is it as bad as the critics said in 1973? Let’s take a listen.
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