By Jeffrey Lee Puckett
Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat is a series of fanciful Manhattan snapshots primarily connected by Fagen’s dry wit, uptown rhythm & blues and a curious fascination with death. It isn’t a narrative, by any means, but more like an envelope of photos found on a sidewalk, as evocative as they are unknowable.
The album is framed by the title track and a reprise, both of which have something to do with a fog-like feline presence that descends upon New York and acts as a booster shot for happiness and hipness, bringing a feeling that’s “cool and sweet and slightly rough / liquid light on New York City / like Christmas without the chintzy stuff.”
Fagen takes us on a tour of doomed bands, hot airport security guards, ghostly encounters with Ray Charles and a city traumatized by “the fire downtown,” “poison skies” and “severed heads.” It’s obviously a reaction to 9/11, but the overall feeling is one of healing — and even a warped kind of playfulness.
Steely Dan fans won’t be surprised by the third solo album from the band’s co-founder. Morph the Cat boasts the same slick, precise and almost detached-sounding grooves that Steely Dan has been working since Aja. It’s polite, intellectual funk that works despite the fact that “polite,” “intellectual” and “funk” don’t belong in the same sentence.
The album bogs down in spots, converting to background music just often enough to detract from its charms, but no one else does this kind of thing better — mostly because no one else does it at all.