Who Makes the Traffic Interesting: Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature Turns 20

Why Walter Becker and Donald Fagen deserved to win that Grammy over Radiohead and Eminem

Steely Dan Two Against Nature, Reprise 2000

Eminem lost, get over it. Not because The Marshall Mathers LP is the inferior record — album of the decade over here, hi — but because at 27 he was nowhere near the expert troll that Donald Fagen was at 52.

For one thing, Eminem loves his daughter Hailie so much that, except when spoofing Michael Jackson, he’s never joked about being a pedophile, much less disguised it as E-Z listening. On their first album in 20 years, these multiplatinum dinosaur act and AM heroes one-upped their own “Hey Nineteen” and introduced us to the narrator who baby-talks his high-school guest in “Janie Runaway” thusly: “Who has a friend named Melanie / Who’s not afraid to try new things / Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain / Possible you, Janie runaway.” Yes, Eminem jokes about “raping his own mother” in his words, at the start of Marshall Mathers, but he didn’t send that one to radio. Enter Two Against Nature’s first single, “Cousin Dupree,” in which a failure who lives on his aunt’s couch hits on his own relative, who’s “turned my life into a living hell / In those little tops and tight capris.” That’s Steely Dan’s comeback single, the ones who sold 40 million records to your parents.

That’s what happens, though; Eminem’s an idealist, screaming his plight from the rooftops in earnest until everybody takes notice. Right or wrong, he’s always argued that you can’t deny his passion. That’s even why his recent jokes suck so much, he demands mic-drop moments and big applause for his labyrinthine verbal constructions and monuments. He can’t play it cool, so when he tries to enter the mind of the Las Vegas shooter on this year’s Music to Be Murdered By, he never escapes into the role. He’s a phenomenal actor in his own life story, which is why “Kim” and 8 Mile are astonishing career highs. Someday his memoir will dazzle and depress us all.

Steely Dan’s entire purpose is playing it cool, lacquering down their own house-of-cards chord structures into pop-jazz fusion for boomer sophisticates who can pretend it’s no big deal. They can escape into the exaggerated everyday horrors of “Janie Runaway” or “Cousin Dupree” (or Two Against Nature’s self-explanatory opener “Gaslighting Abbie”) because they’re cynic enough to know they can get away with it. They’ll bet you four Grammys on it, one of which that specifically went to “Cousin Dupree.” But obviously they’re much more than trolls; Fagen’s writing is at times as detailed and fantastic as Eminem himself; Dupree played keyboards in a ska band the first verse is sure to note. When Dupree finally makes his move, he’s rebuffed due to “the dreary architecture of [his] soul,” amen. “But what is it exactly turns you off?” asks the clueless freeloader.

Steely Dan: Valued Grammy Winners

You could say that Eminem and Steely Dan explore two sides of the same toxic masculinity coin, with Marshall Mathers the insecure rageaholic whose deadly outbursts lead to emotional, sincere apologies, and Steely Dan’s narrators often the too-secure manipulator that wins because they succeed in making their victims feel normal. The latter is more chilling in its quietude; while Eminem’s “Kim” is a landmark work of art in its portrayal of unhinged domestic violence, Two Against Nature contains the most disturbing first-person descriptions of grooming that may be on record. It’s completely fluent in them, either a dark joke about the old men Fagen and late cohort Walter Becker have become, or a suggestion about how many men are doomed to become that.

That they’re also fluent in Muzak, particularly the stankless, Febrezed jazz-funk that dominates the album, connects the abusive with the everyday. The big joke was how “normal” this Grammy upsetter was, how it’s the grinning Biden to Kid A and Stankonia and Marshall Mathers’ jostling, hectoring, status quo-upending Sanders.

Dan fans aren’t dumb, and many delight in these literary values and societal unpackings. But they’re also aware of how many ok-boomers test-drive their expensive cars and apartment stereos with this pristine lavishness without catching any of the private jokes. Named after Naked Lunch, Steely Dan have always enjoyed creating contradiction within luxury, and they were far more subtle and successful at sneaking their irony across than Randy Newman, who dropped the n-word in “Rednecks” and endured minor radio controversy for “Short People.”

 

VIDEO: Steely Dan Live Two Against Nature

Like Eminem, the glee they take in these conceptual landmines isn’t all they do; they’re virtuosos. You too can be the boomer who enjoys Two Against Nature purely for how great it sounds, how skillfully it’s played, how spotlessly it’s produced. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a virtue to chew on the R&B of “What a Shame About Me” or the Tito Puente-informed tonal shifts of the title track rather than just listening close and waiting for the dirty words. “Two Against Nature” alone deploys an astounding array of multi-dialetical literacy : “grok,” “Madame Erzulie,” “rinkydink,” the Haitian homophobic slur “masissi,” and last but not least, “skanky.” The dominatrix in “Almost Gothic” has Fagen “sizzling like an isotope,” and a Genius commenter unearths the brilliance behind the seemingly more innocuous “she hits me with the cryptic stuff” line: “Getting hit with something cryptic sounds like his lady friend is talking in riddles, but in actuality she’s literally hitting him with chains and things that might be found in a crypt.” Well, you already knew this band reads.

Steely Dan Two Against Nature advert 2000

 

The one thing Two Against Nature doesn’t have going for it is a legacy. Nothing’s uncooler than “Steely Dan’s Grammy-stealing reunion album” and the prime effect of this band is to make fans wish for better days that never existed. Most will not take Two Against Nature over Aja or even Gaucho.

I do, not just because funk and rhythm has been pushed to the top of the mix thanks to hip-hop and dance-guided pop in the 20-year interim but because it hits harder, more grotesquely, more forthright. The strange modal shifts into the choruses of “Gaslighting Abbie” and “Two Against Nature” are more fit for Esperanza Spalding than the radio that embraced Santana’s Supernatural, or Aja, but radio doesn’t play Ornette Coleman either. Maybe it’s not easy listening after all. But no one asks Eminem’s best album to turn down the ugliness, and it’s time Two Against Nature was nominated for that honor, in many ways the apotheosis that this band’s obsessively overworked jazzier phase was always working towards, until it collapsed under its own pile of guitar-solo takes.

Creepy and self-assured, Two Against Nature is a band comfortable in their own cologne-covered filth. Patrick Bateman would love it. So would Slim Shady.

 

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Dan Weiss

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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