By Melissa Ruggieri
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
RICHMOND, Va. — At his best, Donald Fagen is a peculiar curmudgeon, a sort of mad scientist mixing up elements of jazz, funk and pop and somehow making them stick.
That Fagen, the one so prominent on his first two solo albums, 1982’s The Nightfly and 1993’s Kamakiriad, is the kind of guy you want to hang out with at a bar, even though his existential ramblings might push you to one vodka too many.
That Fagen is certainly present on Morph the Cat, the last of what turns out to be a trilogy of work mirrored by his age. But while the mad scientist blended a few potent brews this time — wonky time changes, slithering brass, humorously thoughtful lyrics — the overall outcome is lifeless.
That has nothing to do, of course, with the theme of death pulsing through these nine tracks, starting with the feline apparition of the title track that both opens and closes the album.
The stubby bass and Fender piano rolling in the background of Morph are an enticing combination on what is the album’s best offering. But too many others, “What I Do” and “The Great Pagoda of Funn” especially, plod aimlessly through tedious rhythms that are more self-indulgent than engaging, the same problem noted on Steely Dan’s overrated Everything Must Go from 2003.
With his Steely partner, Walter Becker, Fagen has an inescapable editor, a fellow musician to share ego space with and someone who might tell him that a seven-minute-plus song that barely changes key (“Pagoda”) might not be a good idea.
Here, for every amusing tale of an airport security worker finding love — or at least a tryst — with a passenger (“Security Joan”) is a “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” an astute consideration of “a thuggish cult” that “gains control of the government” that still conveys neither anxiety nor, well, coherence.
When Fagen hits a metaphorical homer as on the death-sniffing “Brite Nitegown,” his intellect is an imposing force. But, as Morph repeatedly illustrates, even smarty pants can be boring.