Steely Dan’s music is a serious business – crafted, polished, full of word games and references to Proust and Freud. Much like the men themselves
By John L. Waters
“I like the neon, I love the music,” deadpans Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen on “Green Book.” “Anachronistic but nice.” That might describe “Everything Must Go” (Reprise), the band’s new album — the first since 2000’s Grammy-laden “Two Against Nature” (Giant). There’s a comfort-food element to their noirish pop-jazz sound, which typically pits a warm, funky rhythm section against hook-laden arrangements, cool Blue Note horns, sexy backing vocals and the blues-drenched guitar of Fagen’s songwriting partner, Walter Becker.
Pretty much the way they sounded a quarter-century ago. Before disappearing for most of the ’80s and ’90s, Steely Dan were one of the most critically lauded and popular US rock bands of the ’70s. “It lifts your heart up … it’s the most consistently upful,” said the late Ian Dury, talking about Steely Dan’s multi-million-selling 1977 album “Aja” (MCA).
There’s an edgy sense of post-9/11 loss, mid-life crisis and sexual anxiety throughout the nine songs.
The heart of Steely Dan’s appeal is that this immaculately recorded feelgood music is paired with words full of anger, pain and black humour, enunciated by Fagen’s nasal, perfectly pitched lead vocals. Think of Raymond Carver’s bleak tales — or the paranoid inventions of Thomas Pynchon — wailed above a fatback groove. Becker and Fagen’s songs are elliptical stories of cheats, thieves, lovers and losers, with a clear-eyed nod to 1960s counterculture and science fiction.
And the new songs are as sharp and funny as the early work: they have kept the formula fresh. “I think both of us have a lot of childlike qualities,” says Fagen. “Because we started to make a living at this when we were pretty young, it gave us a certain privileged status where we didn’t have to cope with some of the stuff that other people have to cope with.” Becker adds: “That’s right — we succeeded while still in the petulant-brat stage.”
“Everything Must Go” contains material as darkly comic and funky as anything in their long career. The more conservative Dan fans who felt uneasy about the digital sheen of “Two Against Nature” will welcome the richer sound texture of the new tracks as a return to form. There’s an edgy sense of post-9/11 loss, mid-life crisis and sexual anxiety throughout the nine songs. “Slang of Ages,” sung by Becker, revisits their favoured subject of older men trying to relate to younger women (“Damn – she skipped dimensions.”). “Green Book” is a compelling account of what its makers list as “remote viewing, voyeurism, jealousy and sexual objectification”, with lines that could have come from the art director of a fashion glossy: “The torso rocks and the eyes are keepers. Now where’d we sample those legs?”
“The Last Mall” joshes with consumerism at the end of the world; “Lunch With Gina” is like Frasier at his most desperate; “Godwhacker” could be a new atheist anthem. The upbeat “Blues Beach,” available as a digital download, is like a signature tune for their 1970s rock contemporaries, now mired in “the long sad Sunday of the early resigned”.
Steely Dan are unlikely to take early retirement. As the cokeheads, strummers and stoned poets of west-coast rock fade away, Becker and Fagen, now in their 50s, are as driven as ever. Doing an interview with them is like riding the hipster switchback at the Disneyland of cool; each question is teased and twisted into absurdity.
The wisecracking-loser routine is the device through which Becker and Fagen can be studious Clark Kents to the stadium superhero that is Steely Dan. On the road, they are a professional music machine with a four-piece horn section, three women singers and a super-tight rhythm section that maintains their elevated status in both rock and jazz firmaments. A US tour stretches from June to October. Off stage, Fagen reads Proust, Al Frankel and Alain de Botton; his writing partner favours Georges Bataille and “the instructional manuals you get with guitar effects pedals”.
In fact, the best way to get a straight answer from Becker is to ask a technical question, which elicits a long, erudite answer on, say, the relative merits of analogue and digital recording. Fagen encourages Becker’s more outrageous flights of fancy before returning to the question. He will also discuss music with great seriousness, but both men shy away from discussing their cryptic lyrics. Among what they call the “loyal fandom”, online discussions of their written oeuvre run to tens of thousands of words. The line “We could rent a paranymphic glider” (from “Blues Beach”) has already sent fans scurrying for their dictionaries.
Do they ever choose a word merely because it sounds good? Fagen: “We would never do a thing like that.” Becker: “There’s a songwriting guild that we’re members of, and we promise, among other things, not to do that. We’re only allowed to write three songs a year using a girl’s name.” Fagen: “But there are ways of getting around that.” Becker: “Yeah, right. Pixeleen, who knows what that is?”
Steely Dan’s albums earn backhanded compliments such as “sophisticated” and “glossy”, but there is a genuine lack of artifice in the way they make music, avoiding the cloying synths and horn samples that plague “authentic” world music as much as they smother commercial pop. “In pop music … you’re not even sure what you’re hearing any more,” says Fagen. “Even when they use real horns they often double them, which to me obscures the tone … they do it because they think it sounds bigger, but I don’t really think it does. We’re interested in detail. We try to keep away from things that obscure detail.”
A brief dismissal in men’s mag Maxim suggested that “like a 50-year-old with a pony tail, an earring and a Porsche, these guys feel like they’re just trying too hard”. That might be a good way to describe their more baroque press releases, sleeve notes and website wind-ups, including a drawn-out campaign to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (By the time they pretended to auction off their trophy, the joke had worn thin.) But the music has a degree of unforced consistency matched by few songwriter-producers of any era.
In addition to the general theme of loss, “Everything Must Go” pays tribute to a lost age of pop music, with phrases such as Duke of Earl, Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Stone Soul Picnic dropped into the lyrics like madeleines.
“I think as you grow older, your adolescent years seem to loom large,” says Fagen. “Things that you really loved when you were growing up tend to seem to be the best.” Becker continues: “In a way, doing the last album released us to do a couple of more poppy songs — that would contrast with the jazzier, more harmonically advanced ones.” Fagen says: “Songs that are written in a certain period tend to have certain themes. There is probably a certain amount of unconscious planning.”
“Y’know, Freud said that pop songwriting is the royal road to the unconscious,” says Becker. “But he also said that the unconscious always says yes, so that doesn’t leave you many options,” replies Fagen, quick as a flash.
Their intellectual credibility may annoy pop fundamentalists, but it came in useful when launching their comeback. “When we finished ‘Two Against Nature,’ ” says Becker, “all the record business people were trying to decide whether this was an important musical event or a pathetic attempt to reinvigorate a long-dead career. So we recruited a couple of celebrity writer type fellows. William Gibson, who we knew to be a fan, wrote a nice little quote for us, also Roddy Doyle.”
“And Elmore Leonard,” adds Fagen. “They were all kind enough to give us little blurbs.”
The title track is one of their most extraordinary conceptions to date, opening with tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf’s wild interpretation of the bridge tune, before settling into something like a CEO’s resignation speech set to a slow groove. I can imagine a dotcom crash survivor taking comfort from its magisterial progress, and Weiskopf’s Coltrane-like embellishments to the vocal lead: “It was sweet up at the top/’Til that ill wind started blowing/Now it’s cosy down below.” Yet by the third verse we have met “Dave from acquisitions”, a character as sleazy as any of Carver’s creations – or Ian Dury’s.
Though Becker and Fagen happily endure the promotional rounds of radio and press, TV chat shows are off the agenda. “We’ve been invited to do a couple of them and have respectfully declined,” says Becker. “Television has been coopted as an organ of the state here in America, and we don’t want to get involved.”
Fagen: “By the time we were 11 or 12, I think both of us had a sense we were in some kind of matrix, in which advertising was no small part. In the ’60s there was a cause for optimism. We’ve ended up as if the ’60s never happened. Maybe it was the drugs or whatever, but it just didn’t work out. I think it’s hard to maintain your optimism as you get older.”
“Let’s put it this way,” says Becker. “The amount of optimism that we had was very low maintenance.”