A look back at Becker and Fagen’s so-subtle – too subtle? – studio swan song
I’m not sure a weird band has been mistaken for normal more widely than Steely Dan.
Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and their ever-rotating cast of sidemen didn’t look like the kind of people you wanted to bring home to your parents, nor the kind of people whose motorcycle you wanted to escape on the back of. They had a clean, Three Dog Night-sounding vocalist and a pinched, perturbable-sounding one with a heavy New Jersey accent on their first album – and after that they got rid of the one who sang well. And while their lyrics were as ambitious and allusive as Dylan’s, they reliably shied away from the projection of persona. Even when they sang in the first person, you were somehow sure they weren’t giving it to you straight, and their specificity was limited to odd arcane references – never was a plot turn or fully-fledged character perfectly discernible.
This stood in stark contrast to the strenuous clarity of the actual music. From moment one, their sound was spit-shined and fluently jazzy, epitomizing a laid-back, harmonies-and-licks-laden style that for many defines the ’70s. It’s difficult to fathom now how new this cocktail of received sounds felt in 1972 – AM radio was ready to assimilate it very early on, and the Dan didn’t share the Eric Dolphy desire to stay an outward-bound course. Their albums got a little more esoteric and a little less melodic as they carried on up the charts, but the band itself only drifted further and further into the mainstream. By 1980’s brittle, involuted Gaucho, they were nothing short of platinum-plated, sun-tanned, Grammy-magnet POP – a platonic sonic ideal for a contemporary music industry which wanted things so smooth you could never choke on it. They closed their heyday wearing this approach like a badly misguided polo shirt. But as one decade gave way to a few of others, this style got edged under the umbrella of a new pejorative: “yacht-rock”.
VIDEO: Knocked Up Steely Dan scene
The switch enabled, for instance, Seth Rogen to get away with saying the band “gargles [his] balls” to Paul Rudd’s insistence that they’re great in Knocked Up, to which Rudd feebly specifies “old Steely Dan.” And yeah – though the sunny harmonies and spot-on solos on oldies staples like “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” don’t exactly sound avant-garde, a certain special kind of person knows that the band lost something after their fourth album, Katy Lied. They explained this shift in the liner notes to the reissue of their fifth album, The Royal Scam. Catching themselves on the radio after a flight back to L.A. in 1975, they bemoaned “the tinny bleat of our own music, its every flaw hideously magnified, its every shortcoming laid bare.” Their solution was to spend the apparently limitless money they were being handed in pursuit of literal musical perfection.
They’d sometimes been insufferable taskmasters, occasionally prone to treating musicians like machines in the studio, but this was a hard turn they never reversed. Here, legendary session player Jeff Porcaro describes the band (no longer pretending to have more than two official members) attempting to secure a drum part circa 1980: “From noon till six we’d play the tune over and over again, nailing each part. We’d go to dinner and come back and start recording. They made everybody play like their life depended on it. But they weren’t gonna keep anything anyone else played that night, no matter how tight it was. All they were going for was the drum track.” Four years into this, the pair of principals could no longer deny that the pleasure part of their process had disappeared somewhere. They soon split for twenty years of dabbling, sometimes together. Then they made a new Steely Dan album, as if not a day had passed.
It’s been joked that Two Against Nature swept the Grammies for all the wrong reasons: the elitism their music so aptly soundtracked, the median age of a Grammy voter in the year 2000, or the specter of their chief competitor – cultural lightning rod Eminem. That said, it was also a fabulous record. It was harder to be cynical about its neatly virtuosic sessioneers recorded in spotless digital in 2000, when the threat had already spread too far to feel so pernicious. Yet the playing was warmer and more soulful than on Gaucho or any of Becker or Fagen’s solo albums, even Fagen’s vocally open-hearted The Nightfly. Though he never sounded so forthcoming while working with Becker, as if playing it cool for his partner, Fagen’s voice was once again the breathing soul of a great Steely Dan album – he doesn’t sound friendly or optimistic, but he sounds alive, a soupçon of gristle ever so slightly staining the corners of his artlessly nasal high whine.
The band had been touring together for years, and continues to, even in light of Becker’s untimely death from esophageal cancer in 2017. Having sounded so revitalized with Two Against Nature, it makes sense why they felt compelled to follow it up. That 2003’s Everything Must Go was the last album they made, however, only makes sense if you listen to it – and hear it as the disappointment so many did. So many also didn’t – the fans ate it up, and Becker and Fagen did some onstage grousing in later years about it being underrated. One wonders about this, because to some extent, the album feels like the most wholly the Dan inhabited their reputations as the consummate yacht-rockers (or jazz-rockers or dad-rockers or whatever slur you prefer). It’s possible this album is the stripped-of-imperfections golden mean of the muzak-rock they founded: the sonically perfect, proudly mechanical thing they always wanted to make.
It’s strange to use a word like “mechanical” when the guest list is filled with brilliant musicians who could play perfect blues and jazz licks in their sleep. But that’s the thing: are we certain they weren’t asleep? Everything is automatic and programmatic through Everything Must Go, every note burdened by the element that’s meant to liberate it – the technology. Sonically, the album is as flaw-free yet vaguely dated as the cover art, which, like all cover art from the late ‘90s to the early ‘00s, looks shitty. Nothing behind said art offends, not in the slightest, not even those characteristically misanthropic lyrics – while every speck of friction comes from Fagen’s larynx, by now he’d mastered the art of concealing the switchblade under his Burberry. Moreover, none of these songs are troubled by a great chorus hook; it’s impossible to maximally enjoy the album unless sitting with your eyes closed marveling at how deftly an instrument is played is your idea of a great time. Which to be fair, for many Steely Dan fans, it is.
Steely Dan’s lyrics always seemed cool, ahead of their time, hip to a set of secrets you’d never be savvy enough to be let in on. Still, their evasion of specificity included direct social commentary – they could obliquely slag Nixon or L.A., but their stances weren’t yours to pin down. So it’s a little jarring that the first track here shoots an arrow at a sitting-duck target from the turn of the century: the mall, mass failures of which were once seen as our best evidence of empire decline, though we’re all declining just fine without them in our present superstore stage. They also step in this unprecedented self-dating elsewhere on the album – “Pixeleen”, for example, a pitch meeting for a blockbuster starring an all-artificial action vixen. It’s not a non-prescient subject, but the lyrics are littered with clumsy attempts at slang satire (“your pager[!] starts to throb/it’s your as-if boyfriend Randall/better keep it real, or whatever”). Both tracks, as it happens, contain some of the album’s nicest music, tastefully furnished with covertly terrific melodies.
Two Against Nature was littered with detail-perfect portraits of young women, Fagen’s vocals mocking, yet also kind of embracing, the lust of the litany of dirty old men he played or channeled. Everything Must Go is a lonelier album. Like Pixeleen, the subject of “Lunch with Gina” doesn’t feel actually present. And on the title track or “The Last Mall” or “Godwhacker”, which envisions a hitman for history’s most prolific mass murderer, Becker and Fagen turn their eyes to the world at large, which as usual they’re not banking on ending well. Though they never do this sanctimoniously – that would require doing it sincerely – there’s something weirdly ineffectual about it; these are not men you trust to leave marks when they snap out at Bigger Issues. The most pointed lyric here is “Slang of Ages,” which is just one big come-on. It gets the most emotionally invested vocal, too, and it’s Becker’s – his very first on a Dan album, amusingly preceded by a seemingly endless 33-second buildup. It’s so easy and horny, it instantly illuminates the song’s object d’affection.
“The Things I Miss the Most” is its antithesis: relaxation into an already-ruined life, as opposed to the temporary reawakening from a new opportunity for destruction. It’s a divorce song, and it’s keyed to the surfirest hook and lyric on the album – “the talk/the sex/the somebody to trust/the Audi TT/the house on the vineyard/the house on the gulf coast…” Is this what Steely Dan had become? The perpetually ironic celebrants of rich assholes? Jokesters whose hardest-hitting jokes were now the cheapest ones? People so obsessed with well-played jazzy dissonances that they didn’t even bother to set that lyric to an at-all interesting melody? On some level, this is the most genuinely elitist and cynical the band had ever been. They’d flashed feeling before, on “Deacon Blues” for instance. But if they’d slipped “I cried when I wrote this song” into any of the ones on Everything Must Go, it would’ve played as another cheap, bitter joke.
Becker and Fagen wrote so intelligently, so wittily, so consistently well, and championed such marvelous music throughout their career, you wanted them to be that kind of hero you can count on to see clearly. Their lyrics beat Dylan’s, because of their aversion to mess, and it was a daring and exciting thing for a pop band to be so in love with jazz playing and harmonies they infused their music better than anyone with it. But what did they love more – the gritty passion and spiritual fire shot through Coltrane’s playing, or coke-bottle-lensed, polo-shirt-clad Rudy Van Gelder’s higher-than-hi-fi, you-are-there engineering? I don’t know how Steely Dan felt, as postmodernity marched on, about their growing reputation as a lame band; they weren’t lame people. They genuinely seemed content, though: being the tightest, pleasantest jazz-rock band in the world was even more their goal than making each other laugh while writing lyrics.
As I sit here, Everything Must Go sidles into another repeat, and I must say: I feel nothing if not pacified. It’s true, too – live with it a while and there’s a whole palace of brilliant ideas ready to emerge for you, each pristinely in its place. But where’s all the outreach? It’s so homogenized you barely notice Becker’s bass, the definition of supple throughout. Nothing ruffles anywhere, and don’t you listen to pop music for a little ruffling here and there? “We were the enemy of punk bands all over… where are they now?” bragged Fagen in 2003, but now there are quite a few punk bands, doing things like protesting fascism, and very few jazzy rockers pleasantly aging into well-paid dinosaurhood. And so many of the long-gone old punks – well, they’ve never come within a mile of Seth Rogen’s balls.
Just don’t judge the Dan by their last, and worst, album – it’s the only one where they traded their guts wholesale for the perfect groove.