Doing It Again
They like the gray area. Like a pitcher who paints the corners of the plate with a late-breaking curve ball, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan to us) avoid giving you anything you can hammer. Plenty of critics and pundits have the purple thumbs to prove that while their aim may be true, it's of little use if you can't grab the nail. Sure, there are the handy-dandy clichés to trot out: studio sophistication, moral ambiguity, cold rock-jazz fusion, aloof personas. All are completely accurate as well. Steely Dan were studio sophisticates. Their lyrics do delve into moral ambiguity. Their music does veer off into cold rock-jazz fusions. And the two guys still standing after the mid-Seventies purge are as aloof as businessmen waiting for a train. Our reaction to them should be simpatico. We may like Steely Dan, admire them for their education, chuckle at their subtle wit, gasp at their auditory symmetry, and spend meaningful time trying to untangle their poetic conceits, but will we ever love them?
Their radio hits inspire the most immediate devotion. Tracks such as Do It Again, Rikki Don't Lose That Number, or even Reeling in the Years have a certain accessibility lacking in the band's more sophisticated cuts. These songs have the feeling of familiarity, both from radio's brainwashing ways and the tunes' relatively concise structure. You can hum them. You can even feel compassion for the singer. For all the duo's cool veneer, you can locate if not a rock and roll heart, at least a young beatnik's jazzbo aspirations.
Their first batch of albums, issued in the early Seventies, worked that way. Can't Buy a Thrill (on which Fagen, doubting his own vocal abilities, hands half the record to David Palmer), Countdown to Ecstasy, and Pretzel Logic are all surprisingly human. Perhaps it's the pretense of an actual band, but while Becker and Fagen were writing with the driest wit east of Randy Newman, the performances had enough human emotion to undercut the cynicism that always threatens fallen idealists.
Although they might never admit it, idealism is what kept Becker and Fagen punching hard. Rock and roll may have grown up around the notion that the loose, sloppy, barroom feel of the Rolling Stones was central to its success. Perfectionists seeking order in an imprecise world, however, could have none of it. Only perfect groove-lock could satisfy these obsessive compulsives to do it again. With 1975's Katy Lied, Becker and Fagen deep-sixed the pretense of community and hired an impressive list of studio cats to flesh out their vision. (Jeff Porcaro, Hal Blaine, Larry Carlton, and Hugh McCracken were among the suspects.) Yet it's a testament to the clarity of the duo's vision that these heavyweights never topple the tower. Even if esoteric, antiseptic, darkly ironic exercises such as Black Friday, Daddy Don't You Live in No New York City, and Bad Sneakers don't play in your provincial Peoria, you have to admit these guys pulled off something beyond mere studio professionalism. They took the beating of an idiosyncratic heart and set it to the tune of a different drummer.
But where Katy Lied successfully meshed the colliding of disparate cultures -- pop stardom dissipation with corporate efficiency -- future releases turned brittle. The Royal Scam, released in 1976, made some jokes too obvious (Haitian Divorce) and others too deliberate (The Fez), but whatever the conceptual leaks, all could easily be overlooked if the music wasn't also hardening. One of the drawbacks of achieving goals is where to place the next goalpost. Since neither Fagen nor Becker seemed likely to be the get back to their roots types, it was only natural that they would forge ahead toward further studio sophistication.
The duo's 1977 effort, Aja, managed to pull off the ultraslick El Lay vibe by embracing the obvious fusion. A track like Peg, with its rhythmic complexity, striking chords, and cool-as-the-wind-in-your-hair harmonies symbolized the platinum society of the rich and famous, even as its highly successful members distanced themselves through anonymity. It was 1980's Gaucho, Steely Dan's first farewell, however, that finally caught them bogged down in their excesses. The varnish had become so thick the wood underneath lost its character.
The duo sensed this and went their separate ways, eventually teaming up in 1993 for Fagen's second solo album, Kamakiriad. The record itself suffered from amnesia. You could play it repeatedly and remember little. But the important step was made. After a decade apart, the conversation was open for a new beginning. Prudent almost to a fault, Fagen and Becker decided on a reunion tour, which was documented on the 1995 set Alive in America. With no new album to promote, and distinctly averse to nostalgia, Steely Dan found out the answer to one surely nagging question: Did anyone remember a Seventies studio supergroup? The obvious Yes led them to write new material.
At the turn of 2000, Steely Dan released Two Against Nature, an album that would make Rip Van Winkle proud: Twenty years elapse and nothing's changed. Sure, anyone can make an album that sounds like Steely Dan, today's technology being what it is. But not everyone can bring a song as brilliantly sadsack as What a Shame About Me, in which the protagonist works at the Strand bookstore in New York City after his latest rehab stay only to run into a successful careerist from his old school. The singer can barely raise his eyes to meet the attractive female's inquisitive gaze. Whereas years ago he would've taken up the offer of a few hours in a hotel room with an old flame without conscience, now he's riddled with insecurities about meaning, about potentially reinforcing the patheticness of his life. He doesn't need to be reminded. He's cooked. He's hanging on the edge of the plate for dear life, wondering if the umpire will expand the strike zone again for old time's sake. Like he's done for good ol' Steely Dan.
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