By Zachary Houle
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Something funny happened to me while I was listening to Donald Fagen’s fourth solo album, Sunken Condos, and first since 2006’s Morph the Cat. The record company kept a pretty tight leash on this release, and, to make a long story short, I had to download some software and then have the release streamed directly into my computer. However, when I went to play the album, each time that a new song began on the playlist of the stream, the volume control, for some reason or another, reset itself, effectively turning the volume down with the culmination of each track, resulting in a rather beleaguered rock critic having to manually turn up the volume in my computer’s control settings for each and every one of the nine songs that grace this long player. This is funny, because it’s almost as though Donald Fagen was sending me a personal message: this is a record that you don’t crank up. You turn the music down, so it is as soft and inoffensive to others as possible.
Of course, turning down the volume on one’s songs is about where Fagen’s career has gone since the release of Steely Dan’s groundbreaking 1977 jazz-rock fusion album Aja. I like to use the following analogy: imagine a kid is tasked with the chore of mowing a lawn, and said kid goes to town with the task to create the neighbourhood’s most well manicured greenery and spends countless hours achieving the pinnacle of perfection. That would be the lawn-mowing equivalent of an Aja—something so shockingly good and crucial to the development of modern music, that people (well, except Grammy voters who mostly overlooked the record, save for an engineering award in a technical category) along the street stopped in their tracks and marvelled at all the hard work that paid off. The kid, pleased with the results of his labours and efforts, decides that in order to receive the same kind of commendation that he had received doing the lawn the first time, he must mow the lawn again the very next day in almost precisely the same fashion, despite the fact that the lawn is already shorn of its lengthy green. This would be the Steely Dan/Donald Fagen equivalent of 1980’s Gaucho, and pretty much everything that came after. There was no more reinvention—just the toiling of going back and recreating a job that had already been done, something that was still nice to listen to (or, in the lawn’s case, look at), but nothing that would move the earth in way that the original cut would do.
That’s where Fagen is now positioned: he’s trying not so much to recreate a sound than he is trying to polish it beyond its already shiny sheen, and rather than look for new ways to innovate the fusion of rock and jazz as genres, he’s gone completely soft—a complete 180 from the Dan’s 1972’s country-tinged pop classic debut Can’t Buy a Thrill. (Has it been 40 years already?) The results, while generally treated somewhat kindly by aging baby-boomer rock critics (especially 1982’s The Nightfly, an album I find hard to listen to as it is way too digital and perfect for my liking), is that Fagen has moved more and more into territory that is almost neither rock or jazz but the light and soothing sounds of some entirely different creature of his own designs. Well, there are parts of Sunken Condos that are downright lounge-y, the sort of thing you will find best suited to listening to in a darkened club as you gaze longingly at a significant other while swirling a small plastic sword in which an olive is impaled on in a martini glass. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, as if there’s one thing Fagen does do in whatever he’s doing, no matter how fluffy and soft it might sound, is do what he does extremely well with attention to detail. Case in point: Sunken Condos has been gestating in recorded form since at least 2010, so it’s been probably poked at and prodded over for some time, or so I would imagine. However, what’s more, the autobiographical nature of Fagen’s previous three solo releases has been largely dialed down for something a little more light-hearted in nature. So maybe this was a fun album to make, with no need for metaphysical weightiness or pondering. That would maybe make this record one that straddles the line between pleasure and perfection. All in all, the end result may not be the sheer sonic thrill that we would come to expect from someone who had the brains behind Aja, but is actually quite groovy to listen to: to crib a message from one of the song titles, Sunken Condos might not be prime Donald Fagen-related material, but it still remains “Good Stuff”, even “Very Good Stuff”. At this point, that’s pretty much all we can ask for.
Sunken Condos does see Fagen stretching out beyond the jazz-rock fusion of yore a little wee bit. Opening cut “Slinky Thing” (a euphemism for “penis”?) is particularly a bit on the funky side—funk more or less strutting as it strolls along, rather than racing out at full throttle—with a generous helping of late ‘70s vibes adding a glossy touch to the track. From there, Fagen settles into a couple of songs that are more or less in his comfort zone. Promotional single “I’m Not the Same Without You” even cribs the feel of the opening riff of Steely Dan’s “FM”, or before settling into a low key light jazz-cum-disco number that will probably make its way to many a soft rock radio playlist. It’s a pleasant song, though it does throw a bit of a curveball in the fact that there’s a quaint, if not a little cheesy, harmonica solo in the middle of this. Dapper and debonair, “I’m Not the Same Without You” is precisely the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from Fagen for the past 35 years or so. This trend of few surprises continues on the following track, “Memorabilia”, which is almost a summation of Fagen’s past career and how he looks upon it: “Have you seen the memorabilia? / The rusty old memorabilia / The souvenirs of perfect doom / In the back of Louis Dakine’s backroom.” It’s almost as though Fagen is admitting that he’s been pretty much forgotten—today’s version of the Aretha Franklin of “Hey Nineteen”. In an attempt to remain relevant and fresh, Fagen goes completely 12-bar blues on the following track, “Weather in My Head”, which also contains references to Al Gore and, if Morph the Cat is said to be a mediation on growing old in the age of terror, then this is his rumination on an American natural disaster of recent vintage: “Here comes my own Katrina – the levee comes apart / There’s an ocean of misery floodin’ my heart.”
From there, the only real eyebrow-raising moment is the choice to cover Isaac Hayes’s “Out of the Ghetto”, which is a rather strange choice, indeed. With lyrics such as “I took you out of the ghetto / But I could not get that ghetto out of you,” the song seems a little presumptuous. Donald Fagen, of middle-class New Jersey origins, is about as far removed from the ghetto as you can come. But if the effect was meant to branch out into soul music, Fagen certainly does a serviceable job of honouring “Chef”. It’s what comes after this that’s a little baffling, but in a good way: “Miss Marlene” actually does a commendable job of resurrecting the ghost of Aja, and feels the most like any song that Fagen has had a hand in during the past 35 years that actually sounds like it could nestle onto that album quite comfortably, with its hummable melody that manages to lodge itself into your head and flip on the “No Vacancy” sign within. And that’s not to speak of the fact that the song is about a woman, which would mean that it would easily join the vaulted category of “Aja”, “Peg” and “Josie” when it comes to Steely songs about women. “Planet D’Rhonda” is another “off the hook” stab at recreating former glory, and is a near perfect counterpoint to end the album with, though I do get the sense the song is a little too low key to be the final arrangement. However, consider that “Josie” creates the same effect on Aja and maybe this isn’t a baffling decision after all.
I would imagine that my stream to Sunken Condos is going to disappear at some point, which means I’ll be briefly without this record for a period. It’s certainly good enough that I think this is something I’m going to break down and actually purchase, which is a bit of a change from Fagen’s previous two solo albums. Sunken Condos is the kind of album I wasn’t sure Fagen still had in him: surprising and yet sophisticated. Sometimes it does feel that Fagen is running through the motions, but it sounds like he’s actually having a bit of a great time with the material. Basically, Fagen offers up his own self-critique on “Good Stuff”: “There’s a special satisfaction / When a job comes off so right”. He may have been referring to the flawlessness of a bona-fide classic like Aja, but for a lawn moving job on grass that certainly didn’t need cutting again until the next rain or another week, those words are adequately a great summation of what Fagen offers here. Sunken Condos might not be up top in the Steely Dan pantheon, but it’s still a pretty darn good job worthy of paying the mower another quarter for his services, whether we needed him or not.