Steely Dan is getting old.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
June 18 2003 12:31 PM

Steely Dan Is Getting Old

And that's a good thing.

CD cover

It's been 30 years since Steely Dan came out with the first of nine albums that infused pop music with new layers of knotty harmonies, insouciant irony, and a cryptic poetry that Dylan might have conjured had he pored over Burroughs instead of Guthrie. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the former school chums from Bard who created Steely Dan (a name taken from the steam-powered dildos in Burroughs' Naked Lunch), are now 55 and 53, respectively; their output of late has been less than prodigious (three records in the past two decades); their basic sound is as distinctively slick—detractors would say soullessly repetitive—as that of any act in rock history.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, a regular contributor to Slate, has written about music for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Absolute Sound.
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So, why, at least for their fans of long standing, do they still delight, compel, sometimes—as on the best tracks of EverythingMust Go, their new CD—even startle? It's not just the retro doo-wop backup singers, the Blue Note horn charts, the slam-dunk backbeat, or the skylark guitar riffs, though these things do help break down resistances. Above all, it's the Fagen-Becker songs: literary sparklers with oddball narratives, usually about loss, illusion, or unfulfilled dreams, sung by a narrator who's either blithely clueless or self-loathingly aware of his slim prospects.

Then there's the narrator, played by Fagen, who sings nearly all the Steely Dan songs. Can Fagen properly be called a singer? He strikes attitudes more than notes; his vocal cords strain when they exceed their half-octave range. Yet without his harsh knife-edge cri de coeur, the polished instrumental arrangements can slack perilously close to smooth-jazz fusion. This is why letting Becker sing " Slang of Ages" was a bad move; the tune comes off as a middling blues. When Fagen's at the mike, a tension brews between the voice and the musical mix. (For a more elaborate theory of Fagen's role, click here.) He's a troubadour for our times, just as Dylan, that other great nasal whiner, was for his: Dylan's persona, the rebel-protester who storms off Maggie's farm; Fagen's, the world-weary Sybarite who sees "the blood orange sky" above the freeway but feels too beat for rage, and so takes refuge in "the long sad Sunday of the early resigned" (to quote from two of the new songs, "The Last Mall" and " Blues Beach").

Everything Must Go sports some of Steely Dan's catchiest hooks and grimmest lyrics. The disc's first song is about the closing of a mall, the final song about the end of a corporation. But the grand theme of the whole album is the merciless meltdown of all sure bets. Truly everything must go, including the ultimate man upstairs. " Godwhacker," the album's destined classic, might have inspired mass disc-burnings had Fagen sung the words more clearly. ("In the beginning/ We could hang with the dude/ But it's been too much of nothing/ Of that stank attitude/ Now they curse your name/ And there's a bounty on your face/ It's your own fault daddy/ Godwhacker's on the case.") Some early reviewers have interpreted the song as a portrait of terrorists or an attack on Bush. Nonsense. It's a pitch for Götterdämmerung, the cool ravings of a modern Job turned nihilist, Nietzsche crossed with Shaft.

So, we've come full circle from The Nightfly, Fagen's 1982 solo masterpiece, which wistfully evoked the bright-eyed early '60s, the New Frontier of Cold War vigor and limitless possibilities: when Fagen was a restless teen in the Jersey suburbs, dreaming of the day that he and his girl, Maxine, could "move up to Manhattan/ and fill the place with friends/ drive to the coast and drive right back again"; and when the future was imagined as a "streamlined world" run by "a just machine that makes big decisions/ programmed by fellas with compassion and vision."

Now the millennium has arrived, and not even the bomb shelter Dad built can provide protection from the fallout. On "Blues Beach," the narrator talks to "my hypothetical friend." Real life and sexual desire have merged with computer games, programmed by very different sorts of fellas, as in "Green Book" ("The torso rocks and the eyes are keepers/ Now where'd we sample those legs?/ I'm thinking Marilyn 4.0 in the Green Book"). The long-unnerving Steely Dan fetish for vapid underage girls ("Hey, Nineteen" on Gaucho, "Janie Runaway" and "Cousin Dupree" on Two Against Nature) is supplanted by swoons for " Pixeleen," the teeny-bop heroine of an anime spy-thriller ("Pixeleen/ Rave on, my sleek and soulful cyberqueen").

That name, Pixeleen—could it be a VR recombinant of The Nightfly's Maxine ("pixel" + "ine")? There's an intriguing reverie in the middle verse, lasting just a couple of lines, where the melody segues into a Leiber and Stoller-style lilt, similar to that long-ago song "Maxine," and Fagen reminisces, "Flashback to cool summer nights … in the room above your garage"—before the pixel-pixie lures him back to Matrix-land. It's the one moment of unmasked elegy on Everything Must Go, when the flippant irony dissolves and lays bare the heartbreak of what's been lost.

Fagen said in a recent New York Times interview that he regards all Steely Dan albums as "comedy records to some degree," and of course he's right. Fagen and Becker are not Lou Reed; they have no urge to wallow in the miasma. Take the album's finale, the title song, which, after a long, wistful, party's-over tenor-sax solo, begins: "It's high time for a walk on the real side/ Let's admit the bastards beat us/ I move to dissolve the corporation/ in a pool of margaritas/ So let's switch off all the lights/ and light up the Luckies/ crankin' up the afterglow …"

This isn't mere whistling-in-the-dark denial. The Dan know, and well capture, the subversive sexual thrill of letting it all go up in flames. But there is also a deep, sweet sorrow in the final lines:

Talk about the famous road not taken
In the end we never took it
And if somewhere on the way
We got a few good licks in
No one's ever gonna know
'Cause we're goin' out of business
Everything must go.

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