By Robert J. Toth
The Wall Street Journal
One of pop music’s sneakiest masterpieces has turned 25. Often, an album rises from regular best-seller to classic status because it captures the temper of its times. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” for instance, simply sounds like 1967, trippy and disarrayed. But “The Nightfly,” the 1982 album from songwriter Donald Fagen, gives that standard a twist. Instead of evoking the early ’80s, Mr. Fagen captures a different time — the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, when America was starting to simmer but the ’60s hadn’t arrived in earnest. Along the way, he pulls off an unmatched bit of alchemy, blending satire and affection without letting one overwhelm the other.
If the album doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. “The Nightfly” has sold more than a million copies and shown enough staying power to get a soup-to-nuts anniversary edition in November from Reprise Records. Yet it never quite made itself inescapable. If you’ve heard one of the songs, it was probably either “I.G.Y.,” a catalog of World’s Fair forecasts about the future, or “New Frontier,” a frantic, jazzy number about a “summer smoker underground” in a fallout shelter.
You might also know Mr. Fagen, who has a long history of misdirection. As the front man for the band Steely Dan, he co-wrote a decade’s worth of hits that hid snarky lyrics under silky harmonies and slick musicianship. “The Nightfly,” which arrived a couple of years after the band broke up, was something else altogether. For once, Mr. Fagen stopped being cryptic and opened up to his audience.
As he wrote in the liner notes, the songs “represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.” The cover adds another layer of autobiography. On the front, we see Mr. Fagen as a crew-cut deejay on the graveyard shift. On the back is his audience, a single lighted window in a row of tract homes — or maybe the artist as a young man, drinking in inspiration.
If so, he didn’t forget a thing. Throughout the record, Mr. Fagen draws on obscure corners of American pop for his musical settings — stuff that got pushed to one side by the British Invasion and then trampled underfoot by the harder sounds of the late ’60s. But he’s not simply aiming at pastiche. The music always reinforces his themes of innocence and experience.
In “New Frontier,” for instance, he uses cocktail-party jazz to set the story of a would-be ladies’ man on the make. The music sounds as frenetic as the teenage hero’s hormones, and its deliberately cheesy tone matches the kid’s skin-deep sophistication. Likewise, “The Goodbye Look” uses a campy tropical backdrop — the kind a teenager would hear on his parents’ cha-cha records — for a tale of romance and revolution on an island paradise. Mr. Fagen throws in some vocal homages, as well. “Maxine,” a story of hand-wringing college romance, gets decked out with soaring harmonies worthy of the Four Freshmen.
The lyrics are just as poignant and precise. Take the opening number, “I.G.Y.,” which pokes fun at space-age daydreams. “By ’76, we’ll be A-OK,” the narrator promises, enjoying undersea trains, wheels in space and “Spandex jackets, one for everyone.” But Mr. Fagen’s vocals never make it seem like he’s sneering. He seems to be joking about his own dashed hopes as much as everyone else’s, and he clearly has a lot of affection for those forgotten tomorrows.
“New Frontier,” meanwhile, turns JFK’s famous phrase into a metaphor for the mysteries of sex and adulthood. The song follows a wannabe hipster through a party in his parents’ bomb shelter, as he chases a girl “with a touch of Tuesday Weld” and imagines a future that would get big laughs in “The Graduate.” “I can’t wait till I move to the city,” he confides, “till I finally make up my mind to learn design and study overseas.” Obviously, Mr. Fagen is having some fun at his hero’s expense. But he also seems to have fond memories of just how sexy a vacuum-packed world could be.
The album’s most revealing line comes in the title song, narrated by the disc jockey on the cover. “You’d never believe it,” he tells his listeners in a weak moment, “but once there was a time when love was in my life.”
I sometimes wonder what happened to that flame
The answer’s still the same
It was you, it was you
Tonight you’re still on my mind
A girl, surely — but maybe also the America that got swept away by riots, sit-ins and Southeast Asia.
Reprise’s reissue moves the story along by bundling in Mr. Fagen’s two other solo records — as well as a bunch of extras — to make a “three ages of man” trilogy. “Kamakiriad,” from 1993, is a witty meditation on middle age and its regrets, told as a sci-fi travelogue through a future America. “Morph the Cat,” released in 2006, is the weak leg here: a first-draft effort from a musician who makes a living on precision. As for the extras, you get a lot of hard-to-find songs and multimedia doodads, but the real gems are Mr. Fagen’s sly liner notes. In particular, one closing observation: “I’m glad I made ‘The Nightfly’ before a lot of the kid-ness was beat the hell out of me, as happens to us all.” It’s a perfect coda for the record — and a melancholy confirmation of its themes.