By George Lang
The first three albums of his solo career were separated by more than a decade, but Donald Fagen lives in his own hermetically sealed, meticulously crafted bubble of style. He does not respond to musical trends, and to test whether this is true, load everything Fagen has done in the past 33 years into a playlist — with Steely Dan and as a solo artist — and shuffle vigorously. Tracks from 1980’s Gaucho blend beautifully with Fagen’s new album, Sunken Condos. He is one of the few major artists who can occupy a specific sonic space for decades, do almost no renovations on that property and get away with it, mainly because he owns that space free and clear. This is Fagen’s jazz-soul dystopian hot house, and anyone who does not buy in can just get off his lawn.
Sunken Condos begins with a familiar lyrical dilemma: perils of dating young women when, like Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, Fagen gets older and they stay the same age. “Slinky Thing” posits that everyone at a party is wondering “what she’s doing with that burned-out hippie clown.” This has been Fagen’s default position since he was in his 20s, and it always works, because there’s something compelling about someone who can be both a dirty old man and a practitioner of immaculate music. But elsewhere, as he did on 2006’s Morph the Cat, Fagen is dealing with new pressures buried in his timeless grooves. “They may fix the weather in the world, just like Mr. Gore said/ Tell me what’s to be done about the weather in my head,” Fagen sings in “Weather in My Head,” one of his best songs in years, against a crystalline modified blues progression.
The biggest surprise on Sunken Condos is a left-field cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto,” and it’s a killer — sinewy, funky and truly soulful. Fagen rarely records cover versions unless he has a specific love of the song: the last one, the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller classic “Ruby Baby,” came 30 years ago. But apart from that tribute to Hayes, Fagen is mainly painting in familiar colors, and as long as he can do songs as bright and impeccable as “Miss Marlene,” he can use those colors as much as he wants.