By Bradley Bambarger
Newhouse News Service
NEW YORK — Recording engineer Elliot Scheiner recalls that Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen was once rather obsessed with making records.
While recording “The Royal Scam” in 1975, Scheiner expressed dismay that Fagen and Steely Dan partner Walter Becker wanted to work on Christmas Day, engineer in tow. Fagen replied, with logic a single guy found hard to argue with, “You got something better to do?” The studio lights were on that holiday.
It’s a bit different now. Fagen (and Scheiner) took this Christmas off, after the singer/keyboardist spent most of a year perfecting his studio tan with a third solo album, “Morph the Cat,” due out Tuesday. At 58, Fagen has at least been getting out a bit more, having developed a taste for performing; in the 1990s, the stage-shy Steely Dan returned not only to make more Grammy-winning records but to tour for the first time in decades.
Fagen is now on his first solo tour, set to land in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Wednesday. A few Steely Dan tunes and R&B covers spice the set, but the show concentrates on tracing the complementary threads of Fagen’s solo work — from the brave-new-world nostalgia of “The Nightfly” (1982) and sci-fi romanticism of “Kamakiriad” (1993) to the apocalyptic-erotic musing of “Morph the Cat.”
“New Frontier,” the debut single from “The Nightfly,” bred a hit video that waxed nostalgic about the amorous possibilities of the Cold War bomb shelter. On “Morph the Cat,” love and sex are similarly viewed as solace, if not shelter, from disaster.
“I grew up half-expecting to see a mushroom cloud on the horizon,” Fagen says. “Post-9/11, the anxiety isn’t as bad, even if the danger is actually more present and people just don’t talk about it. But the ground hum of paranoia and government surveillance that goes with wartime makes people feel they need to sneak around, which can be sexy.”
Fagen was born in Passaic, NJ , and reared on beat novels, Fellini movies, science fiction and Mad magazine, all of which can be discerned in the sardonic fantasias of his lyrics. Upbeat and ultrarefined, the funk of “Morph the Cat” might pour out of speakers like audio butter, but the humor in the songs — if lighter than with vintage Steely Dan — often is tinted a laconic shade of black.
Along with love during wartime, Fagen’s new themes include death. The title of “Brite Nitegown” comes from a W.C. Fields expression referring to the Grim Reaper as “the fellow in the bright nightgown.” Typically, though, Fagen spins sad experience (such as the recent passing of his mother) and his own mortality issues into a lightly ironic, cinematic groove.
It is social politics as much as music that Fagen dwells on in conversation these days.
“Morph the Cat’ the song started out as just me taking an aerial view of New York,” says Fagen, a longtime Manhattanite who lives on the Upper East Side. “But it became a surreal way of depicting people being narcotized by a short-term high. The mass-media, advertising-saturated brain death in our country can be alarming.”