Working With Brains But Not As Much Heart

 

Originally published on July 17, 2000

By Joan Anderman
Boston Globe

”Let’s dip into the middle ’70s and see what we can find,” cracked Donald Fagen before easing into ”Night by Night” at the Tweeter Center Saturday.

It was a classically wry comment from Fagen. Steely Dan was the ’70s for fans of pristinely crafted, intelligent pop. And the title of the album he dipped into, 1974’s Pretzel Logic,’ perfectly defines this genuinely twisted and obsessively intellectual band, which is less a band, really, than a concept — a vehicle for the sophisticated, enigmatic pop songs that singer-keyboardist Fagen and his partner, guitarist Walter Becker, have been writing on and off for 30 years.

Steely Dan’s music has never had anything to do with current trends or popular styles. This year’s Two Against Nature, the band’s first album in 20 years, is entirely unaware of hip-hop, alt-rock, electronica, or anything else that’s happened in pop music in the last 20 years. It does, however, have everything to do with how these exceedingly intelligent and deeply weird men’s minds work. Which accounts for the cerebral thrill of the concert, as well as its bloodlessness.

The show opener, the early oddity ”Boston Rag,” received cheers from the two-thirds-full house for obvious reasons. But over the course of two hour-long sets, the crowd’s enthusiasm didn’t wane. Steely Dan has never lent itself to casual fans – heated analysis of the Dan’s lyrics was a popular parlor game for ’70s hipsters and geeks, and the passing of years hasn’t dimmed the long-lived cult’s passion.

Backed by a nine-piece band that evoked the dozens of stellar studio players who have passed through Steely Dan’s portals, Fagen and Becker played only three songs from the new album: ”Cousin Dupree,” ”Janie Runaway,” and ”Jack of Speed.”

Three decades into its career, both the sound and the sleazy fringe characters Steely Dan savor in song have remained remarkably intact. Dupree — who comes on to his cousin under the influence of crisp rhythms and jazz-inflected melodies — is a not-so-distant relative of the similarly smooth-and-salacious baby boomer aching to seduce a teenager in ”Hey Nineteen,” on 1980’s Gaucho.

The music was as clean as the characters’ minds are dirty; rarely has the sound at a live rock show been this immaculate. The sheer complexity, endless ingenuity, and technical prowess of songs like ”Josie,” ”Glamour Profession,” ”Royal Scam,” ”Deacon Blues,” ”Peg,” and ”Kid Charlemagne” (these guys just don’t have any sub-par material in the vaults) were a pleasure to behold. But Steely Dan’s music is fueled by the mind, not the heart. For all its glory, the music is almost entirely devoid of emotion. The conundrums are structural, the revelations scripted, the perverse poetry purely sonic: fascinating to behold, but impossible to take to heart.

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