By Josh Tyrangiel
Back in the primordial rock ooze of the late ’70s, Steely Dan wanted the world to think it was more wanton even than its extravagantly wanton rock peers. Judging from their blithely cynical and mordantly libidinous 1970s songbook, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were guys who would wait until the Eagles checked out of the Chateau Marmont so they could rush in and snort what was left on Glenn Frey’s coffee table. Then they would go to a bar and talk about hitting on high school girls.
Back then, the band’s misanthropy seemed a bit of a pose. But on Everything Must Go, its second album in three years (2000’s Two Against Nature won four Grammys, including Album of the Year), Steely Dan fully inhabits the role of rock’s would-be Humberts, swinging through lite jazz riffs and dropping amber-encased phrases like “the big adios” while the girls ignore the come-ons. On tracks like the heartsick “Things I Miss the Most” — with Fagen yearning for the days of “Frying up my sad cuisine/Getting in bed and curling up with a girlie magazine”–the two are loners romanticizing lechery. On “Blues Beach,” the romance is replaced by a tropical bleakness: “I’m dying, freezing in the merciful rays/And it’s the long sad Sunday of the early resigned.”
Why would rockers (or anyone) subject themselves to these sleazy depressives? To start with, there are lots of dirty old men out there, and the men of Steely Dan are better comrades than SpectraVision. They also happen to be spectacular musicians. Those groovy jazz chords and glossy harmonies sound easy, but they’re not, especially when you consider that all the initial tracking on the terrifically produced Everything Must Go was done live. The music is also where the irony is. It’s so airy and chipper that when mixed with the lead weight of the lyrics, it induces a pleasant sense of numbness that, given a few drinks, might be mistaken for depth. Everything Must Go doesn’t have the relentless catchiness of their late-’70s work, but Fagen and Becker do seem happy in their advancing misery. That’s the immortality they share.