Sophisticated skank

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker return with the first new Steely Dan album in 20 years.

Published March 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Steely Dan slid like a malevolent ice cube through the '70s, their complex music and insidious lyrics burning a cold tunnel through the decade's soft, fatty tissues. The antithesis of punk, they were just as necessary: Both were antidotes to the hormone-driven fatuity into which rock is always threatening to collapse. Against such California emptiness, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker represented the revenge of darkest New York. Hipsters from the metrop, sneeringly urbane wise guys with nasal accents, they set their recondite, pessimistic lyrics -- equal parts "Mean Streets" and Bob Dylan -- to dazzlingly accomplished, hook-happy, jazz-inflected tunes. From the opening notes of their first hit single, "Do It Again," with its cryptic tale of eternally recurring foolishness accompanied by a typically virtuoso electric sitar solo, it was clear that these guys had something new under their porkpie hats.

That something was technique. It wasn't just about playing well -- tons of rockers could do that -- but an obsession with, almost amounting to a fetishizing of, musical sophistication. This obsession took two different but related forms: drop-dead, lapidary perfectionism in the recording studio and an unprecedented use of the idioms (and players) of jazz, which they seamlessly transformed into kick-ass rock 'n' roll. The jazz influences in their songs range from the superficial, like the quotation from Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" in the bass line intro to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," to the profound, like the tricky time signatures on "Your Gold Teeth II" or the harmonically audacious title cut on "Aja," with its thundering tenor solo by former Miles sideman Wayne Shorter.

Above all, it can be felt in their compositions, which unite clever, unusual modulations and chord voicings with bright, memorable melodies. Steely Dan's music represents an encounter of structure and invention that is almost unheard of in rock -- and shines more in that restricted setting than in jazz's wide-open spaces. Their jewel-like songs represent a more intriguing marriage of the two forms than most so-called fusion, which all too often is merely an excuse for some chopmeister to take a five-minute supersonic solo over two chords.

Steely Dan remain the hottest "cold" rock group ever; they proved that a nonperforming band made up of a bunch of session players could slam. (It helped considerably that they always put together fiendishly good rhythm sections.) This feat wouldn't surprise anybody in the jazz world, where legendary recording sessions are routinely made by a bunch of guys who just met over a chart, but it has always sat uneasily with those who worship the holy rock trinity of primitivism, passion and spontaneity.

Steely Dan always had plenty of passion, but the other two qualities are almost completely absent. In their place is a fiercely exacting musical intelligence, carefully planned and brilliantly executed. In that regard, there was always something oddly grown-up, in the best sense, about their music -- in an art form that gives carte blanche to stream-of-consciousness rants, it's edited. This approach could easily have led to bloodless, art-rock pretension ` la Yes or the Moody Blues; what saved them was a certain street-smart earthiness that's rooted in both black American music and a post-Beatles pop sensibility, a soulfulness embodied in the very timbre of Fagen's sarcastic, heartfelt voice.

Still, it's a delicate line to walk, being artificial rockers (after their first two albums, the "band" was essentially Becker, Fagen and a Rolodex), and at times they fell into mannerism. There are moments on their last two albums, "Aja" (1977; which nonetheless remains one of their masterpieces) and "Gaucho" (1980), when the Dan's polished-to-the-bone style began to smack of decadence. This feeling of overripeness was heightened by some of their lyrics, in which one of their archetypal narrators, the existential hipster, began to show signs of becoming an overblown L.A. hepcat with an operatic sense of his own life ("I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets/Make love to these women, languid and bittersweet"). And their music, especially on the disco-inflected "Gaucho," became smooth to the point of surreal lounge-iness. It was a pretty interesting lounge, filled with David Lynchian characters and dangerous women, but compared with the jumpin' jungle rooms of "Katy Lied" and "The Royal Scam" it was a little ... plush.

But mostly, they made sophisticated, gorgeous, classic rock 'n' roll. The list of memorable songs from the Dan catalog is endless, from the stunningly propulsive "Green Earrings" to the haunting "Dr. Wu" to the maniacal barrelhouse blues of "Chain Lightning" to the melancholy sparkle of "Turn that Heartbeat Over Again." And always, there was amazing musicianship. The classic Steely Dan albums were virtual guitar textbooks -- think of Jay Graydon's mind-boggling run on "Peg," Denny Dias' sinuous voyage through "Your Gold Teeth 2," Skunk Baxter's inexorably building solo on "The Boston Rag" and on and on.

And then there were those enigmatic lyrics. Becker and Fagen remain among the most underrated writers in rock. The standard rap on them is that their lyrics were hip to the point of incomprehensibility, inside jokes so inside that they themselves didn't even know what the punch lines were. There's truth to this, but even when their lyrics were impossible to completely pin down, they were allusive enough to light a delayed fuse in the mind. And Becker and Fagen mined other veins than Poundian fragmentation. They specialized in sly narratives, telling tales as various as the disconcerting offspring of a Caribbean one-night stand ("semi-mojo -- who's this kinky so-and-so?"), the saga of Puerto Rican immigration into New York and the glory days of acid czar Owsley (whom they cunningly dubbed "Kid Charlemagne"). And their best writing, in songs like "Rose Darling" and "The Caves of Altamira," combines the two styles and possesses a terse, metaphoric passion that stands comparison with the finest rock songwriters.

Becker and Fagen hung it up after "Gaucho." Mostly, it seems, they were just burned out. Fagen released a stellar solo album, "The Nightfly," in 1982, after which neither man released a record for 11 years. Part of the reason for this long hiatus was a painful purgatory endured by Becker: He was struck by a car in New York and badly hurt, his girlfriend committed suicide by taking an overdose of drugs and he himself fell into drug dependency. (Becker's extraordinary, little-noticed 1994 album, "11 Tracks of Whack," is an extended confession about his dark night of the soul; though uneven, several of its songs, in particular the stunning Icarus ballad "Surf and/or Die," possess a raw, tortured brilliance.) Becker moved to Hawaii and overcame his problems with what Fagen in a recent Rolling Stone story called "sheer Bavarian willpower." He returned to New York to produce Fagen's "Kamakiriad" (1993; a strong but somewhat less accomplished offering than "The Nightfly") and went on to tour with Fagen and an 11-piece band in 1993 and 1994.

For Steely Dan fans not among those 324 people to have seen them opening for Bread in 1972, the news that they were going to play in public was a bit like being told that Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger were going to be leading a sensitivity workshop in Times Square. Seeing the two old friends and artistic partners, who for years barely spoke, together again onstage was moving in a way that had nothing to do with music. But though the band executed the familiar repertoire competently, and there was a hint of a genuinely new rock sound in the horn arranging, it didn't break much new ground -- and there weren't many new songs. Fagen's marvelously expressive voice, never of operatic strength or range, was outgunned by the big unit. The whole thing was in a whole other league than the standard "lifetime humiliation in exchange for cash" tour engaged in by aging rockers, but that most unseemly of all whiffs, Eau de Brontosaur, hung ever so faintly over the stage.

All of which makes the release of "Two Against Nature," a mind-boggling 20 years after the last Steely Dan album, a rather momentous event -- if any of their increasingly decrepit fans still possess enough neurons to take note of it. In fact, the album is a test case not just for the artists themselves but for their fans: What do two decades do to one's musical tastes? Even if the boys can still get it up, will their listeners still care?

In a ringing affirmation of old age and treachery, or perhaps merely of the fact that stainless-steel phalluses are impervious to time, Steely Dan II prove that they still have it -- in fact, that they're still evolving. (As is widely known, the band's name was taken from a dildo in William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch." Less well known, and a cautionary note for Becker and Fagen, is that both Steely Dan I and Steely Dan II were destroyed -- the first crushed by a bull dyke, the second devoured by starving candiru. Steely Dan III lives on forever in Burroughs' novel, however, spurting milk and giving the boys something to shoot for.)

"Two Against Nature" extends a musical development that was already becoming apparent in "Kamakiriad." On that album, Fagen and producer Becker began to experiment with a new formula: funk grooves and heavy counterpoint under subtler, jazzier changes, with textured horn arrangements filling in for rhythm guitars, which now played a greatly diminished role.

The new album extends that approach into far more interesting areas. It's less immediately seductive than the band's classic albums: Gone is the sweet pop melodic magic that made classics like "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)" soar. You're not likely to hum any of these melodies on first listening, unless you can hum Eric Dolphy tunes. Classic Steely Dan songs had melodies that moved seamlessly from verse to chorus to bridge: On "Two Against Nature" there's often a bigger distance between the verses, which tend to be bluesy in phrasing and melody, and the choruses, which are jazzier and more outside. This gives the weaker songs on the album a choppier feel, by turns too simple and too complex. Still, the variety, sophistication and audacity of the songs on "Two Against Nature" grow on you. Every Steely Dan record has been sui generis, and this is no exception.

Naturally, there's a whompin' rhythm section. Becker and Tom Barney (who plays on three tunes) are in fine form on bass, playing every style from Larry Grahamesque funk to floating fusion to a mean rock bottom, and they're locked in tight with a series of driving, whip-cracking drummers. To this, Fagen and Becker mix multitracked guitar riffs, incisive keyboards, synthesizer-smooth backing vocals and remarkably inventive horn arrangements to achieve musical effects that are intricate, original and oddly compelling.

Not everything succeeds: On the album's first and weakest tune, "Gaslighting Abbie," the dissonant melody of the chorus sounds as if it were written off the chords rather than the other way around, giving its sophisticated tonalities a thin feeling. Indeed, none of the album's first four songs have particularly inspired melodies. But the pleasures of "Two Against Nature's" nine songs aren't primarily melodic. The genius here has gone into the orchestral layering of elements -- and there are musical things on this album that are different, and subtly more advanced, than anything they've done before.

Like the introduction to the album's most exquisite tune, "Almost Gothic" -- it has "standard" written all over it -- in which both the opening horn phrase and the first bars of the vocal drop you right into the middle of the melody before you're ready, giving the whole tune a lovely, unexpected, falling-forward quality. Or the huge, McCoy Tyner-like block piano chords that explode during the bridge of the relentless, up-tempo "West of Hollywood." Or Becker's hypnotically catchy guitar line on "Jack of Speed," with its bouncing, Crusaders-like horn line and hip-hoppy drumming. Or the steaming Cajun beat of the polyrhythmic "Two Against Nature," which with its demented piano comping and bass clarinet tips its hat to Miles Davis' "Bitches' Brew."

Throughout, Fagen is in superb voice -- it may be the best he has ever sounded, in fact. He may have lost a little torque in the upper register, but he has gained something else. His vocals on "Negative Girl," a beautifully icy lament for a girlfriend lost in cocaine madness, are suffused with a pain and compassion you have to have been around the block a few times to earn.

Another pleasant surprise is Becker's guitar playing. Becker, who mostly kept his head down while an endless succession of virtuoso players stole the solos on earlier albums, reveals himself to be a singularly intelligent and tasty player, a master of sneaky fills, snarky James Brown-like funk riffs and clever multitake arranging. At times, he sounds like a shyer, jazzier version of Jerry Garcia -- they share some of the same noodling, stinging phrasing.

As for the lyrics, there's good news for aging immoralists: The nasty 30-year-olds who penned the lascivious, if disillusioned, "Hey Nineteen" 20 years ago have become even nastier 50-year-olds. In fact, a couple of songs on this album could be called "Hey 17." Becker and Fagen have long had a skanky side (the line "Spanish kissing/See it glisten" from "Aja's" jumpin' sex ode "I Got the News" will not bear inspection by Pat Robertson), and as they move into middle age, decided Humbert Humbert tendencies seem to be emerging.

Underage and/or familial thang appears not once but twice here: in the innocently lustful "Janie Runaway" and the just-plain-lustful "Cousin Dupree." In the latter, a straight rocker that's getting airplay, when a dude who has come home "to plan my next move from the comfort of my Aunt Faye's couch" lays reckless eyeballs upon his little cousin Janine, "all I could say was ouch." But his plans for a Dogpatch romance -- which are expressed in the form of the hilariously repeated mantra "How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?" -- are rebuffed with world-class topspin: "Maybe it's the skeevy look in your eyes/Or that your mind has turned to applesauce/The dreary architecture of your soul." (To which the undaunted Dupree replies, "But what is it exactly turns you off?")

The ideal Steely Dan woman, however, isn't either the "wonderwaif" runaway Janie or the sharp-tongued Janine. Her definitive description is in "Almost Gothic": "First she's all feel then she cools down/She's pure science with a splash of black cat/She's almost gothic and I like it like that." Unabashedly sexual ("This dark place so thrilling and new/It's kind of like the opposite of an aerial view"), it's a poignant tale of yearning refined by disillusionment until it's diamond hard -- love music for grown-ups.

The best, most daringly open-ended writing, though, is on "West of Hollywood," which with "Almost Gothic" and "Jack of Speed" is among the best songs Steely Dan have ever written. A tale of wild, hedonistic exploration and spiritual devastation, it summons up blasted images of unspeakable pleasures and terrible losses. "Look in my eyes/Can't you see the core is frozen?/You can't ask me to access the dreams I don't have now," Fagen sings, and the contrast between the burned urgency in his voice and the soaring, exultant music is a pure rock 'n' roll moment for those of us who can no longer believe in light unless it's coming through darkness.

So "Two Against Nature" is bona fide Steely Dan -- no Viagra needed. It's a relief, for listeners who came of age with this band, to discover that the two can stand against nature, that the passage of 20 years finds them still kicking. There are very few Rip van Winkle moments that allow us to measure our own progress by that of our rediscovered contemporaries -- this is one. Rock is not supposed to be a country for old men. But anybody can ride that rock 'n' roll rocket out there. It's not so easy to ride it home.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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