Tried and True or Being New

By Jon Pareles
The New York Times

It’s a rare band that can measure its history in decades, and for those that do, the choices don’t go away. Reinvention or refinement? Keep up with the latest or stick with what has worked before? Steely Dan, founded in 1972, and Metallica, founded in 1981, find their own answers on new albums.

Everything Must Go
Steely Dan

When Steely Dan resumed its career in 2000 with ”Two Against Nature” after a 20-year gap between albums of new songs, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen packed it with pent-up mischief: odd meters and underhanded chromatic harmonies, squalid characters and elusive references, all with their old illusion of unflappable cool. ”Everything Must Go” (Warner Brothers) allows itself more breathing space: vamps that stay in one key, 12-bar blues progressions that pass unaltered, a few uncryptic lyrics.

The music has a genial consistency because much of the album was recorded with one working band and with Mr. Becker playing the lead guitar parts. In the past Steely Dan has gone through endless takes with an ever-shifting assortment of studio musicians. But Steely Dan is never as simple or relaxed as it sounds.

On ”Everything Must Go” Mr. Fagen often sings about apocalypses and other last calls. Narrators are stocking up for the end of the world at ”The Last Mall,” putting out a hit on the Almighty in ”Godwhacker,” shutting down a failed company with one last binge in ”Everything Must Go” and casually admitting to post-breakup loneliness in ”Things I Miss the Most.” There’s also a glimpse into the mind of a video-game (or virtual-sex) designer in ”Green Book” who sees the city as a ”crazy grid of desire,” followed by a breezy love song to a teenage video-game whiz, ”Pixeleen,” who vaults through virtual landscapes and thinks, ”Better keep it real, or whatever.” Mr. Becker makes his first appearance as a lead singer on a Steely Dan album in ”Slang of Ages,” about a failed attempt to pick up a drug dealer. ”She skipped dimensions. Was it something that I said?”

The songs aren’t as stable as they first seem. Jazz chords slip in and divert the harmony, and interludes sprout from nowhere. Every so often Steely Dan tosses out an allusion — to blissed-out 1960’s jazz, to the Beach Boys, to its own old hooks — just because it can get away with it. As drums snicker, guitars chip out funk patters, and keyboards and horns dole out one perfectly arranged comeback after another, it’s clear that Steely Dan hasn’t given up either its cleverness or its control.

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