Steely Message

A new album in a different world

By Robert J. Toth
For National Review Online

The last time Steely Dan put out an album, Bill Clinton was in the White House, the Dow was north of 10,000, and the biggest global issue was what a yawner Y2K turned out to be. The record, their first studio effort in 20 years, was a smash, and for good reason: The world had turned into a Steely Dan song. The band’s biggest hits, from “Babylon Sisters” to “Deacon Blues” to “Kid Charlemange,” were about fast-talking losers living the high life off iffy businesses and lying their way from bedroom to bedroom. If that’s not the ’90s in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

Needless to say, the other shoe has dropped on that decade, not to mention its entertainment scene, whose biggest preoccupation at the time was another fast-talking loser, Eminem. The world has fractured along any number of fault lines — and, possibly even worse, musicians are desperate to Make a Statement about that fact.

Now we have Steely Dan’s statement. And, as usual, they’ve outclassed the field. “Everything Must Go” offers a thoughtful look at what was lost on 9/11 and an acid take on where we’re heading. Its nine songs map out a world haunted by lost love, ruined by a market crash and desperate to grab canned goods as the Parousia looms.

It’s also the wittiest, funkiest collection of songs you’ll hear all year. No matter how stormy or caustic the subject matter gets, songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen keep their lyrics hip and snappy, and couch them with smooth, soulful backing vocals — the same formula the duo used to slip unsavory stories onto the easy-listening airwaves. You find yourself singing along even if you can’t figure out what the words mean, or if you realize they’re about, say, a hipster Satan (“Me, slinky redfoot”) leading a search party to take down the Almighty. The same goes for the musical settings, which stay sleek, jazzy, and masterful regardless of how much anger and hurt is bubbling under the surface.

Call it balancing truth and beauty, or just being a professional. Either way, it’s a lesson lost on most songwriters since 9/11. In the wake of the attacks, lots of tunesmiths have recorded songs with a capital-M message — and, almost to a one, they’re awful, because the song is an afterthought to the statement. If you don’t care for the politics, there’s absolutely nothing appealing about the music.

The classic in this category is Steve Earle, a fine songwriter whose stock in trade is tart tales about lowlifes and their foibles. But when he wrote a tune about Johnny Walker Lindh, it was about as pointed and satirical as a Secretary’s Day card. Even if you overlook the whole traitor thing, Walker clearly is not the sharpest scimitar in the drawer; painting him as a Taliban Candide is not only dishonest, but more or less alienates anybody who thinks otherwise.

What’s worse is that Mr. Earle is probably the most appealing “message” artist out there. What is the average listener supposed to make of Public Enemy’s “Son of a Bush” or Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief”? You can’t listen to stuff like that unless you’re a true believer. Does that serve the ideas the songwriters are trying to get across?

Which is not to excuse artists on the right, all five of them. I’m grateful, for example, that Darryl Worley wrote the flag-waver “Have You Forgotten?,” and I’m glad that so many people have taken it to heart. But musically it’s about as expansive as Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler and his “Ballad of the Green Berets,” a song that makes me want to join a commune and do some gardening in the closet. Even Neil Young, who had the best idea for a 9/11 tribute song — a paean to the passengers of Flight 93 — fell down in the execution. “Let’s Roll” has no tune, and the lyrics are afterthoughts. In a word, unmemorable. What good does that do Young, the heroes of his song or the cause they died for?

Of course, comparing those tunes to “Everything Must Go” isn’t entirely fair. Steve Earle and Co. couldn’t be plainer about the heroes and villains in their pieces, but with Becker and Fagen, you can never be sure. Maybe they’re criticizing the people they write about; maybe they’re celebrating them; maybe they’re simply acknowledging them as three-dimensional human beings, a bit of grace political songwriters usually can’t manage. Then there’s the issue of what the duo are talking about in the first place. I’ll put it this way: The website devoted to deconstructing their lyrics is called “Fever Dreams,” and if anything that’s an understatement.

Whatever the specifics, it’s clear that the world of “Everything Must Go” has seen better days. The dream is dead, and nobody’s doing much to revive it.

The opening number, “The Last Mall,” sets the tone. A bouncy beat and a summery melody almost make you forget that the narrator is a P.A. announcer giving last-minute shopping advice as the apocalypse approaches. It’s hard not to hear duct tape and surgical masks pasted behind the lines:

You’ll need the tools for survival
And the medicine for the blues
Sweet treats and surprises
For the little buckaroos

Be sure to stock up on that second item — there’s not a lot of community unity to fall back on during “the Big Adios.” On “that gospel morning,” Fagen observes soulfully, “you’ll have to do for yourself when the going gets tough.”

Smirking at the Big Adios, and the culture mushrooming in its shadow, is the album’s big theme. “Everything Must Go” presents a gleefully seedy world of digital fun and goatish longing — but there’s a sewer running under those neon streets. Technology can give our heroes just about anything, including virtual lovers, but it leaves them feeling desperate and disconnected.

Even the straightforward love songs hint that the center isn’t holding. After a few listens to “Things I Miss the Most,” you stop hearing the post-breakup jokes (“I’m learning to meditate, so far so good/I’m building the Andrea Doria out of balsa wood”) and realize the narrator didn’t just lose a lover, but a world and a way of life.

The record wraps up in grand style with the title song, a bluesy number set at a farewell bash for a tanking company:

It’s high time for a walk on the real side
Let’s admit the bastards beat us
I move to dissolve the corporation
In a pool of margaritas

As the verses roll on everybody gets drunker, and decidedly less corporate, the subtext becomes unmistakable.

Talk about your major pain and suffering
Now our self-esteem is shattered
Show the world our mighty heigh-di-ho face
As we go sliding down the ladder
It was sweet up at the top
Till that ill wind started blowing
Now it’s cozy down below

Something more than a company has been lost here. The song is a sigh for the ’90s and the world we lost on Sept. 11. The good guys, the pillars of that carefree decade, have lost the fight for the future; we might as well pack up and go home. (And maybe stop off at the Last Mall on the way.) Even if you don’t agree with the assessment, it’s impossible not to get seduced by the music, which is as simple, sad, and elegant as anything the duo have done; and the lyrics, which find a strikingly original and timely metaphor for loss, then unpack it with world-weary humor.

Not to mention hope. Becker and Fagen think we’re “sliding down the ladder,” but they crafted nine marvelous songs nonetheless, which must leave some room for optimism. “Everything Must Go” — just not the music. Never the music.

— Robert J. Toth is an editor at the Wall Street Journal.


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