Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night Is the Gorgeous Sound of the Band’s Impending Doom

Our feature series Dusting ‘Em Off looks at how classic albums found an enduring place in pop culture. Today, we dive into Fleetwood Mac’s 1987 masterpiece, Tango in the Night.

The album artwork for Fleetwood Mac‘s 1987 album Tango in the Night is an homage to 19th century painter Henri Rousseau. Crafted by Australian artist Brett-Livingston Stone, the artwork mimics Rousseau’s studious approach to depicting motion and activity within a still, naturalistic container; the jungle flora, the twinkling water, and the distant animals provide a sense of dreamy wanderlust and desire, but the image is frozen and vast, like the only thing that can disturb its peace is the arrival of a warm breeze.

The painting may have been hanging in Lindsay Buckingham’s house prior to the existence of Tango in the Night, but upon listening to the album, it almost seems like it was tailor made to fit Tango‘s antithetical soundscapes: idyllic but uncertain, bustling but occasionally frozen in stillness, both humid and frigid. On Tango in the Night, the image of natural elegance that Rousseau so often depicted pops up in unexpected ways, in chord changes that can level a song entirely, in bright, twinkling synths and congas, in moments of painful intensity. It would be Fleetwood Mac’s final album as the quintet of Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood, their second best-selling album behind Rumours, and one of the best works in their distinguished catalog.

While Rumours is often highlighted as both Fleetwood Mac’s opus and the most charged recording scenario possible for the band, Tango was also crafted amid challenging tensions. Recorded primarily in 1986 and finished in March 1987, Lindsay Buckingham once again assumed the role of sonic architect and produced Tango alongside Richard Dashut and engineer Greg Droman. Prior to writing and recording, each member of Fleetwood Mac was well into their respective solo careers, with Stevie Nicks becoming the most successful solo member. According to Mick Fleetwood, he was the one who urged Lindsay Buckingham to open up the material he was crafting for his third solo album to the rest of the band.

Though the emotional fallout of their time away wasn’t quite as explosive as the romance-fueled sessions that made up RumoursTango in the Night features a similarly fractured experience, and the process was arguably just as frustrating for Buckingham. It was the mid ’80s after all, and the band were mired in substance abuse issues — Nicks had gone to rehab for a cocaine addiction, John McVie was attempting to quit drinking cold turkey and had just finished sailing around the US Virgin Islands for two straight years, and Mick Fleetwood himself was heavily abusing cocaine. As recording finished, Buckingham left the band, and wouldn’t rejoin in full for another decade.

And yet, Tango in the Night remains one of Buckingham’s greatest efforts as a producer and songwriter. It was far from the scrappy, punk-influenced hues of Tusk and the “back-to-basics” approach of Mirage, and instead presents Fleetwood Mac’s soft rock sound as the most polished, hi-fi pop vehicle they could manage. Buckingham’s three solo contributions — “Big Love,” “Caroline,” and the pounding title track — are all marked with wariness and conflict, his astounding, pinpoint vocal deliveries almost at odds with the uneasiness depicted in the songs’ knotty chords, tribal-esque percussion, and burning synths. “Big Love” in particular is a memorable turn from Buckingham, who soars atop a relentless Mick Fleetwood groove and primal, eerie chants constructed from his newly-beloved sampler, the Fairlight CMI.