By Doug Pullen
FLINT, Mich. — When an artist wins the Album of the Year Grammy Award, that artist pretty much can expect a healthy bounce in sales of said album and a not-so-healthy afterglow of cocktails, parties and God knows what else.
The learned, enigmatic men behind the curtain that is known as Steely Dan — Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — did, indeed, see sales of their Grammy-winning album, “Two Against Nature,” shoot up after they shocked the pop music world by snatching the award from the heavily favored — and publicized — Eminem. The afterglow, however, was rather short for a duo that had gone 20 years between studio albums before releasing “Two Against Nature” in 2000.
“It either lasted, at the longest, three days and, at the shortest, until we arrived at the first post-Grammy party, where we found that in spite of our robust career prospects,” Becker said with a knowing chuckle, “we weren’t robust enough to muscle our way into the line for the meatballs. We left the party very quickly.”
That is so like Steely Dan, which performs at 7:30 p.m. Monday at DTE Energy Music Theatre. They’re not party poopers. They don’t care if a party’s going on. They’re not joiners or followers. They march to their own drummer, usually a very good drummer, like Keith Carlock, who’s behind the kit on their superb new album, “Everything Must Go.”
The Grammy experience wasn’t all that bad for the Bard College grads who’ve singularly mined a jazz-pop hybrid for more than a quarter of a century. “Ultimately, I think, it was very gratifying to both of us in the sense that simultaneously we won and were, you know, humbled and humiliated,” Becker explained. “If you recall, there had been a huge buildup around the idea that Eminem was or was not going to win. What a great controversy. That was the story everybody came to write. The idea that we won this thing was utterly baffling because we won a couple (of Grammys, the other was for pop vocal album) and we went around a couple of times and did successive interviews with the same people and the first time they were bemused to confused, but by the end they were openly pissed off and hostile.”
Teed off media wags aside, the duo forged ahead with “Everything Must Go,” easily one of the best albums in their substantial, if sparse, recorded canon. It is as seamless a blend of pop, jazz, blues, R&B and funk as they’ve ever concocted, and just as out of step with what’s hot in the music business as ever. It’s also one of the most vibrant sounding records they’ve made since 1974’s “Katy Lied,” recorded shortly before they quit touring to become studio hermits.
“It’s an apt comparison,” Becker said. “It was made in a similar situation. We were just coming off tour and we had a bunch of guys we knew we wanted to work with. We had a comparatively contained little repertory company there.”
Making “Two Against Nature” was “a long, arduous process,” Becker said, with typically painstaking meticulousness. This time, they went into the studio shortly after touring, using the same group of musicians instead of an endless procession of them. “It sounds like a band,” Becker enthused, words that neither he nor Fagen have been able to utter for years.
There isn’t a weak track on the 11-song disc. “Everything Must Go” is populated with Steely Dan’s familiar assortment of nefarious characters, tempting vixens and, of course, a few religious zealots and terrorists thrown in for good measure. There is a pervasive sense of finality to the songs, not a swan song so much as a sense of loss more than a new beginning in songs like “The Last Mall,” “Things I Miss the Most” and the title track.
Becker said the fact that he and Fagen are in their 50s had something to do with that. “We are of a certain age,” he said, coughing for comedic effect, “where, essentially, as you go through life you have to at some point reconfigure your ambitions, whether you realized your old ones or not. They’re no longer appropriate.”
The band toiled on “Everything Must Go” not far from the World Trade Center when terrorists blew it up nearly two years ago, a momentous event that permeated the new record like incessant debris.
“We’d been writing apocalypse songs for 30 years. Children of the ’50s that we are, we’ve always been somewhat fixated on that kind of possibility of war or social or economic disaster,” Becker noted. “This event and the climate here sort of reawakened that.”
Becker isn’t sure what they’d do if they won the album Grammy again. He is glad that neither he nor Fagen got sucked into the celebrity vortex the last time.
“It’s so unlike us,” he observed, “to actually win something like that. We managed to do so without in any way undermining our sense of ourselves.”