By Terry Teachout
Wall Street Journal
What does it mean to say that a work of art is “dated”? I know people who sincerely believe that Shakespeare’s plays are dated because of the way in which they portray women, a point of view that says far more about the complainants in question than it does about Shakespeare. On the other hand, countless once-popular artists were so desperate to stay up to the minute that their art barely outlived them. An artist, however talented, who goes out of his way to be “with it” is foreordained to end up looking blush-makingly quaint sooner or later, usually sooner.
Consider, if it doesn’t embarrass you too much to do so, the rock music of the 1960s and ’70s. How much of it holds up today? I was raised on rock and took it with supreme seriousness, but most of the albums with which my high-school playlist was clotted now strike me as jejune at best, horrendous at worst. I don’t know about anybody else, but I haven’t been able to listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash or Jefferson Airplane for decades.
One of the reasons why so much first- and second-generation rock ‘n’ roll has aged so badly is that most of it was created by young people for consumption by even younger people. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing—if you’re a teenager. But if you’re not, why would you want to listen to it now? And what has happened to its makers now that they’re over the demographic hill? Have they anything new to say to us, or are they simply going through the motions?
The Rolling Stones, who recently embarked on their 50th-anniversary tour, can still play up a storm—but so what? When not recycling the hits of their long-lost youth, Sir Mick Jagger and his venerable colleagues trot out “new” songs that sound as though they’d been written in 1962.
Compare these two lyrics:
“Everybody’s talking / Showing off their wit / The moon is yellow but I’m not Jell-O / Staring down your tits.”
“We went to a party / Everybody stood around / Thinkin’: Hey what’s she doin’ / With a burned-out hippie clown.”
The first quatrain is from “Oh No, Not You Again,” written by Mr. Jagger and Keith Richards and recorded by the Stones on “A Bigger Bang,” their most recent album, released in 2005. The second is from “Slinky Thing,” the first track on “Sunken Condos,” Donald Fagen’s new solo album, which came out in October. It’s a sly, ironic portrait of a Goethe-quoting 60-something gent who is dating a considerably younger woman, much to the sardonic amusement of her friends. And which song sounds fresher? “Slinky Thing,” by the longest of long shots.
Unlike the bluntly bluesy garage-band sound of the Stones, Mr. Fagen’s music is a rich-textured, harmonically oblique amalgam of rock, jazz and soul. It is, in a word, music for grown-ups—with lyrics to match. What is especially interesting about Mr. Fagen, though, is that unlike most of his contemporaries, he has always made music for grown-ups. Steely Dan, the group that he co-founded with Walter Becker in 1972, never did go in for kid stuff, and doesn’t now. Jazz heavies like Wayne Shorter and Phil Woods have long popped up from time to time on Steely Dan’s albums, playing solos that don’t sound even slightly out of place.
Donald Fagen’s new solo album.
Needless to say, musical complexity is not the same thing as maturity. What makes Mr. Fagen’s music stand out is its coolly detached point of view. He knows full well that the narrator of “Slinky Thing” is a comic figure and deserves to be. Nor does he lapse into the breast-baring confessionalism that is the blight of second-rate singer-songwriters. He’s a portrait artist, and even when the subject is himself, he wields a razor-sharp brush. Mr. Fagen, who turns 65 on Thursday, is about the same age as the 69-year-old Mr. Jagger. The difference is that he acts his age. Wall Street Journal contributor Marc Myers put it well when he wrote on JazzWax, his blog, that Mr. Fagen’s music “fully embraces the male aging process, which is what makes him cool.”
The British author V.S. Pritchett, who was as good a critic as he was a short-story writer, had a particular affinity for the works of novelists “who are not driven back by life, who are not shattered by the discovery that it is a thing bounded by unsought limits, by interests as well as by hopes, and that it ripens under restriction. Such writers accept. They think that acceptance is the duty of a man.” No doubt it would have surprised him to hear his words applied to a gray-haired rocker, but they couldn’t be more relevant to the music of Donald Fagen. Not only does he accept life’s limits, but he smiles wryly at them—and when he does, so do we.