I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the brainstorming sessions for Saturday Night Live’s “What’s Up With That?” skit. It may not be their most clever bit of all-time – in fact, it’s a rather irritating choice for a running sketch – but the idea of having Lindsey Buckingham serve as a silent foil to Keenan Thompson’s Deandre Cole almost makes up for the increasingly unfunny premise. Bill Hader plays Buckingham with an aloof smirk, and it’s a hilarious juxtaposition. Most of all, though, it’s gratifying to see some limelight cast Buckingham’s way, even it’s the left-field variety.

Lindsey, of course, came to fame via his role in Fleetwood Mac in the late 70s/early 80s and his much-publicized relationship with Stevie Nicks (who, you may be surprised to learn, he met during high school at  – get this! – a Young Life event). On stage he played the role of guitar hero and male counterpoint; in the studio he pretty much masterminded their blockbuster albums, converting the songs of the band’s other two songwriters (Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) into bigger hits than any of his own, “Go Your Own Way” notwithstanding. A card-carrying Brian Wilson-obsessive, Buckingham was responsible for the Mac sound, AKA the sonic backdrop of late-70s California boomer hedonism.

Anyone who has listened to Lindsey closely knows how ironic his reputation was/is. He may have played a laid-back bohemian on TV, but the guy was the least mellow thing to come out of the California music scene since Frank Zappa. There was nothing feel-good about his pinched tenor or the anguish it frequently conveyed. In fact, his banner tune on Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 record, his first with the band, was the paranoid tour-de-force known as “I’m So Afraid.” The solo remains one of rock’s finest and most tortured (see below). The wider audience overlooked his simmering neuroticism, focusing instead on his role in the romantic musical chairs that was Rumours. Rumours, of course, was one of those Thriller-sized records that became a Law unto itself, a reality not lost on its architect.

What do you do for an encore? Lindsey was determined not to be painted into a corner. His response to the commercial and artistic expectation was a strange combination of fight and flight called Tusk.

Considered by many (myself included), to be the Mac’s masterpiece, Tusk marked the apogee of coked-out West Coast culture, an overblown and under-selling collection that sounds very little like what came before or since. Lindsey’s tunes stuck out immediately. They’re almost all warped cries from the heart with thudding percussion and vocals that were yelped as much as sung. “Not That Funny” and “The Ledge” were unhinged reminders of the pain that was fueling much of the debauchery, pulsating proof that the human condition was alive and well under the cool veneer, while “Save Me a Place” was as affecting a love song (and plea for deliverance) as one is likely to find, anywhere. “That’s All For Everyone” makes the spiritual exhaustion painfully explicit, while “I Walk a Thin Line” finds Lindsey channeling his alienation and confusion into one of the best tunes Brian Wilson never wrote. And then there’s the well-known title track, which is one of the oddest songs ever to climb the US charts, a superbly intense psycho-sexual nightmare. Tusk was the sound of a man half-addled/half-energized by the Law, firmly in the grip of various (self-)medications, yet somehow fearless about his fearfulness.

Lindsey has gone on record about the edict he received from the band after Tusk “flopped”: dial it back, man. A command which naturally prompted a solo career. Over the next 25 years, in addition to his off-and-on-again relationship with the Mac, he put out three records under his own name, and they’re all gloriously eccentric affairs. The first, Law and Order, is probably the most consistent, while the second, Go Insane, contains what might be the best rock and roll eulogy ever put to tape (“D.W. Suite” about the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson). The third, Out of the Cradle, he recorded after leaving Fleetwood Mac briefly in the late 80s and it took him five years – he was out to prove himself on his own, i.e. under heavy Scrutiny. It failed to find much of an audience, and listening to it now, as blissed-out and perfectionistically poppy as it is in places, one can certainly see why. Without Nicks and McVie to balance him, his talents were simply too jagged. As a result, perhaps, he didn’t make much noise for the next decade or so.

Which brings us to the present, and what inspired this post. I recently wrote about Glen Campbell’s last-minute renaissance. Lindsey, too, has experienced a significant second wind in his older age, quietly releasing three excellent records over the past five years: the largely acoustic Under The Skin, the more electric Emily Dickinson-inspired Gift Of Screws and the genuinely auteurish Seeds We Sow, which came out last week. He attributes the renewed creativity/productivity to being happier in his personal life, and well-loved by his family. We might say that because his “main gig” with Fleetwood Mac is again carrying the lion’s share of expectations, his solo career has become the place where, by definition, he is free to operate independent of those pressures – at least the external ones. Whatever the impetus, these three records constitute a stunning body of latter-day work.

At this point Lindsey sounds like no one else, not even Fleetwood Mac. He’s making significantly artier and more interesting music than most of those that commonly get the credit for being “cutting edge” (though, truth be told, if you were to take a poll of indie bands, most of them would be hip to what he’s up to – Lindsey’s become something of a cult hero in recent years).

He has pioneered an astounding, accelerated style of acoustic guitar playing that combines classical, nylon elements and folk finger-picking patterns with what can only be called synthesizer-like spikes, over which he whisper-shouts his nervy lyrics. It’s more beautiful than it sounds – just listen to “Stars Are Crazy” or, for an idea of the guitar virtuosity, any recent performance of the legendary “Big Love.” Meanwhile, his louder songs continue to explore his obsession with the three-minute pop single, filtered through his angular melodic sensibility and done up with consistently inventive arrangements and his trademark man-on-the-verge vocals. Some of Lindsey’s finest moments come when he integrates the two approaches and allows a finger-picked verse to collide with an explosive chorus, as on Seeds We Sow‘s “That’s the Way Love Goes” (not a Janet Jackson cover). He’s also revealed a curious affinity for Between The Buttons-era Rolling Stones, covering two of that album’s songs (“I Am Waiting” and “She Smiled Sweetly”).

Buckingham has always been more of a music guy than a “lyrics man,” but his themes remain his own; there’s a lot of riffing on the subconscious (words like “underground” abound), mortality (“time” is another recurring word), madness, and the cruelty of desire. Despite his quiet and even serene demeanor in interviews, Lindsey is clearly no stranger to the darker side of the human psyche, his own most of all. There’s a moral vision at work here, the parameters of which may be a little fuzzy, but the chief undercurrent of which has to do with owning up to the consequences of one’s actions. In “Wait For You,” off Gift of Screws, he even alludes to something universal:

Tarantula passes by the window/ No one takes it as a sign
No one cares which way the wind blows/ Someone’s got to change your mind
Every bone has been broken/ Rumors all lost at sea
Every word every language has been spoken/ Someone’s got to set you free…

Someone’s going to have to pay the price
Someone’s got to change your mind
I’m going to wait for you

As far as uplift, there’s not an overabundance of it, beyond the obvious fact that Lindsey sounds rejuvenated to the point of rebirth. So higher powers are noticeably absent from the proceedings – unless, of course, you consider the freedom he’s experiencing, which does not appear to be freedom from pain/darkness, but freedom for and through it. Lindsey even makes some arresting observations along these lines on the stunning single from Gift of Screws, “Love Runs Deeper”: Love runs deeper from the underground/Love runs deeper from a broken home. It’s certainly proving true in his own story. Love pouring out of him in direct proportion to the, um, troubles of the past – what’s up with that?