Steely Dan Plays New Songs, Old Sound

By Dave Tianen
Milwaukee Journal

Back in 1979, a year of evil developments that included Three Mile Island and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya’ Think I’m Sexy?”, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (a.k.a. Steely Dan) released an album called Gaucho.

And then they took a break.

“Back in the ’80s, we decided to go our separate ways for a while,” Becker recalled in a recent interview.

Twenty-one years later, Steely Dan has reconvened for an album of all-new material called Two Against Nature and a supporting tour that will bring the band to the Marcus Amphitheater on Friday.

Although Fagen and Becker got back together several times in the 1990s for tours, there was no album of new material. More than two decades is a long time between albums for any audience, but amazingly, the Steely Dan faithful seem to have returned to the flock. Steely Dan was never a chart monster, but Two Against Nature debuted at a respectable No. 6 and has been certified gold (sales of at least 500,000 copies).

Beyond that, the album has been warmly embraced by the music press. Entertainment Weekly wrote that “the core elements are unchanged: white-hot chops, black humor and a flair for the cryptic.” Rolling Stone weighed in by calling Becker “a fluid, precise player, while Fagen covers the keyboard waterfront with a variety of jazz and R & B styles.”

The amazing thing is the degree to which the Steely Dan sound has remained intact: the breezy jazz riffs, the darkly wry lyrics, the slightly oblique storytelling.

“What a Shame About Me” relates a chance encounter between a middle-aged failure and the future movie queen he once dated in college. “Gaslighting Abbie” concerns a plot to eliminate an inconvenient spouse, while “Janie Runaway” is a sugar daddy’s enticement to a much younger woman.

“We had considered a radical departure, and in the end we decided not to do that,” Becker said. “It’s really not that dissimilar from what we did in the ’70s.”

As was the case 25 years ago, they often seem stylistically and temperamentally closer to jazz than rock. Becker takes those comparisons modestly, however.

“I’m not under the illusion that what we’re doing is true jazz,” he said. “As listeners, we are certainly jazz fans first and foremost.”

With their musical plot lines of loss, regret and entrapment, Fagen and Becker seem grimly aware of just how far down the road they fall on life’s pathway. Becker certainly doesn’t seem to regard the time apart as wasted.

“I hung out. I read. . . . I tried to stay in shape by jogging.”

Yet if the members of Steely Dan are acutely aware of chronology, there’s a sense in which they stand outside of time. Just as it did back in the 1970s, Steely Dan manages to be hip and knowing without being particularly of the moment.

“We’re sort of distantly related to what’s happening now,” Becker said. “I think there’s a lot of vagueness in music today. There are a lot of little off-shoots that we can relate to. I really think the door has been flung open to just about anything.”

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