Donald Fagen Rises to New Heights with “Sunken Condos”

By Dennis Biles
San Jose State Spartan Daily

Grade: A

Donald Fagen, co-founder of legendary rock group Steely Dan, may be getting up there in years but his slick musical style and witty, yet often sarcastic lyricism doesn’t sound dated at all on his latest solo effort “Sunken Condos.”

By employing his usual method of utilizing a wide array of instruments coupled with clever, unabashed lyrics, Fagen has created a tightly produced album that sounds right at home among the rest of the Steely Dan catalog.

Clocking in at just over 44 minutes and containing  nine tracks, it may seem a bit short by today’s standards, but Fagen built his career on being a perfectionist that obsesses over getting the absolute most of out every single composition he puts together, and he makes no exceptions on his fourth solo album.

Even though Fagen stays true to the signature sound that has helped him craft a brilliant career spanning over four decades, it doesn’t at all mean that he is behind the times or out of touch.

On the contrary, the fact that Fagen is able to get down with his usual brand of smooth funk, while slightly tweaking it with light contemporary grooves, shows that he’s still right in step with the current direction of music today.

Many of the lyrical themes he explores on this album, chiefly getting older and learning how to adapt, show that Fagen is becoming more introspective in his advanced age.

The opening track of the album, “Slinky Thing,” exemplifies this approach perfectly.

Backed by a smooth fusion of funk and jazz, Fagen tells an autobiographical tale of a tryst with a younger woman and the scrutiny from society, as well as himself, that accompanies it.

Those who are familiar with Fagen’s lyrical style will get a kick out of “Good Stuff,” a song detailing the story of a truck heist by a criminal organization which is perhaps my favorite song on the album.

Throughout his career, Fagen has written lyrics that are heavy on metaphors and analogies, and fans are often left to discuss and argue what they believe the true meaning of the song to be.

The song is a testament to that writing style and it should have listeners speculating on its context for some time to come.

When I first listened to it, I thought it was a clever commentary on the intrusiveness of the powers that be upon the public, but now I’m not so sure.

When reading interviews with Fagen where he discussed the album, he said many of the songs were a reflection on his own life, so I’ve begun to wonder if maybe it’s a subliminal shot at the recording industry and how they “steal” an artist’s creativity.

Or maybe it’s just a really slick song about a group of thugs ripping somebody off.

Perhaps it is best left to each individual listener to decide what it means, since figuring out the deeper significance behind Fagen’s lyrics has always been an interesting challenge due to their intentionally ambiguous and ironic nature.

For me, two more highlights of this album come in the songs “Miss Marlene” and “Not The Same Without You,” two songs that seemingly have opposite meanings.

While the former is a dedication to a mesmerizing woman he last saw a long time ago, the latter is a break-up song in which Fagen declares, “I’m evolving at a really astounding rate of speed/ Into something way cooler, than what I was before.” In his usual sarcastic fashion, Fagen croons lines about how much better his life is now that he’s on his own.

Both songs feature smooth-funk beats that excite the senses and soothe the soul at the same time.

Despite getting older and staying with his formulas, Fagen has managed to embrace the present, as well as the future, while still staying true to his jazz and funk roots.

Fagen is clearly not concerned with appealing to the masses and is strictly focused on making the kind of music he and his followers love to hear.

The album itself has no cohesive structure, letting Fagen be free to go where he wants, and many of the songs sound like he’s seamlessly brought together two or more entirely different genres and infused them with his own brand of laid-back but precise smoothness.

For Steely Dan fans, it’s just Fagen doing his usual thing, and it makes for a highly enjoyable listen.

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