REPRINTED FROM THE INDEPENDENT (UK)
By Andy Gill
18 February 2000
Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy
Their quietly obsessed fans have been waiting 20 years for Becker and Fagen to get back in the studio. So can the new album turn that heartbeat over again?
When Steely Dan vocalist Donald Fagen released his second solo album, Kamakiriad, in 1993, fans marvelled at the inordinate length of time it had taken him to come up with a follow-up to the much-loved The Nightfly. For a business in which a week is not just, to use that dullest of political claims, "a long time", but long enough for musical fads to swing into fashion and right back out again, 11 years was a simply inconceivable gap to leave in a pop career.
Eleven years? Pah! Try 20, and see if your career can sustain such a break for next week, as if to outdo his own record hiatus, Fagen and co-conspirator Walter Becker will release Two Against Nature, the first Steely Dan album of new material since 1980's ill-starred Gaucho. And the really extraordinary, rather spooky thing about the new album is that, apart from one or two subtle changes, such as the inclusion of clarinet and bass clarinet in the horn arrangements, it sounds as if they went straight back into the studio the day after finishing Gaucho and started work on this follow-up.
All the Steely Dan hallmarks are there: the sly, wickedly humorous lyrics, written with razors; the deceptively spare funk grooves; the oblique, jazzy horn arrangements; the sardonic, worldly vocals; and most important of all, perhaps, the smoothly-japanned surface, baked to a diamond hardness that renders their albums impervious to the ravages of time and fashion.
For lesser talents, such long-term stylistic fidelity might signal a degree of creative stagnation, or lead to embarrassing musical anachronism (imagine their punk-rock contemporaries of the late Seventies making a three-chord comeback 20 years on), but the music on Two Against Nature sounds light, sharp and as fresh as tomorrow, finely-honed and timeless in a way that bears better comparison with the duo's jazz heroes than any of their rock and pop peers.
And well it might, given the four years of painstakingly meticulous work they've put into the project. The writing of the material alone took an entire year, and in the Steely Dan process, that's the easy part, Becker and Fagen being renowned for the infuriating perfectionism with which they tortured session musicians on earlier albums.
A recent Classic Albums television retrospective about their hugely successful Aja album included one telling scene in which they sat at a mixing-desk pushing up, one at a time, the faders of no fewer than seven separate attempts by top session guitarists to capture the guitar-solo appropriate to the song "Peg". They all sound perfectly adequate exceptional, in some cases but they all, clearly, lacked the indefinable quality for which Becker and Fagen were searching. This time around, one notices, Becker plays all the guitar solos on Two Against Nature. So, have they scared off all the session players, or has Walter just got better at it?
"No," responds Becker with characteristic dryness when we meet up in New York, "we made all the other guys do all the solos, then we didn't use them, so when we do the Classic Albums show of this album, we'll be able to pull up all these great solos!" The truth is that he's undoubtedly a better musician than before, particularly after several seasons of touring with the show that produced the 1996 live album Alive In America; and anyway, the exigencies of the recording process effectively dictated the situation.
"Basically, we went in every day and planned things about 27 minutes in advance in most cases," he explains. "We weren't thinking, 'We're going to need somebody a week from now to do this overdub', we were working at our own rate, tackling things as they arose. We'd work on something, get to a certain point where the next thing to go down is the guitar part, and I was there every day, so I ended up doing most of it."
Besides which, they point out, musicians of the required calibre are usually booked up well in advance, for one thing or another. Their bassist [sic: pianist], Ted Baker, for instance, is in the pit orchestra for the Broadway show of The Lion King, and could only manage to work a few hours in the afternoon before heading for the theatre; and '96 tour drummer Ricky Lawson was only available for eight days before departing, for his sins, on a long tour with Phil Collins. They've still managed to assemble a formidable band, though, as becomes blindingly apparent at the set they record for VH1's Storytellers series. Normally, the Storytellers slot features a songwriter alone or with minimal backing, playing demo-style versions of his or her hits, explaining the stories behind the songs and answering questions from an invited audience. Not in the Dan's case: besides Donald and Walter on electric piano and guitar, there's another (grand) piano player, a virtuoso bassist, a phenomenal drummer, a four-piece horn section, three female backing vocalists, and a second guitarist, Jon Herington, who has the unnerving ability to play any solo from the Steely Dan back catalogue with unerring accuracy. (His name, it later transpires, is comprehensively misspelt as John Herrington on the album sleeve although, as an emollient Becker suggests, "We're trying to convince him that the career he'll be having from now on would be enough to support a couple of extra consonants.")
Before the show, Becker and Fagen never the most comfortable of performers are clearly nervous, but quickly warmed by the audience welcome. Fagen (hunched, thin and angular, with a glint of Gormen-ghastly paranoia in his eyes) skulks behind a Fender Rhodes, occasionally donning one of those portable keyboards that think they're guitars, while Becker (bearded, bespectacled and boyishly professorial, sort of a cross between River Phoenix and Leon Trotsky) cradles his guitar to stage left, peeling off solos and rhythm parts with customary buttoned-down brevity.
Typically, they avoid answering most of the audience's questions directly, employing verbal body-swerves and droll parries to fend off queries about how their band name (named after a dildo in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch) reflects their music, and the specifics of particular songs. At one point, a particularly convoluted, show-offy question from a drummer about the changes in time-signature on a track from Donald's last album is met with a perfectly-timed pause and Walter's damning assessment, "That's a really hostile question, eh?".
Eventually, the show is brought to an abrupt close when a prop a large map of New York overprinted with a few Dan song references like "Radio City Music Hall" and an arrow pointing off-map to "Annandale" proves rather less entertaining than supposed; but not before the band have cruised through a set, mixing old favourites "Do It Again", "Peg", "Josie", "Bad Sneakers", "Kid Charlemagne" with selected highlights from the new album like "What A Shame About Me" and the obvious single "Cousin Dupree", an everyday tale of inbreeding boasting the catchy chorus "How's about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?". Introducing the song, Fagen jokily describes it as "southern", though he's quick to revise that description the following day.
"It's in the folk humour tradition involving a rural, inbred family," he explains, "although I think it's unfair to think of it as something exclusively southern or redneck, because there are Cousin Duprees in all kinds of families. A psychiatrist told me, off the record, that the incidence of incest among his Puerto Rican patients was astounding something like 80 per cent."
"Of course," interjects Becker, "the patients who attend already makes it a very specialised slice of the general population ..."
"And of course, you can't exactly trust them ..."
"No, it may only be 75 per cent!"
"As Freud suggested, there may be a certain amount of wish-fulfilment involved ..."
"Though Freud didn't have any Puerto Rican patients, as far as we know," Becker points out. "There's also a very rich literary tradition of that kind of thing Nabokov wrote a very famous and much-beloved novel about a familial relationship."
"The way Nabokov wrote about it in Anna," muses Fagen (a literature major in his days at Bard College), "there could almost be a perfect love between blood relatives in that case, brother and sister a love that could transcend that of people who just chanced to meet." He pauses a moment. "Not that we're endorsing any of this, of course ..."
The way Freud and Nabokov slip into the discussion is typical of Becker and Fagen's erudite frame of reference; later on, a conversation about another track, "West Of Hollywood", finds Fagen coining the term "DeLillean" to describe the song's apocalyptic undertow. But just as characteristic are the enduring fascinations with magnetically unstable, dangerous girls ("Janie Runaway", "Negative Girl") and proud losers ("What A Shame About Me", "Cousin Dupree" and "West Of Hollywood") which follow the fine tradition of earlier songs like "Peg", "Hey 19", "Do It Again" and "Deacon Blues". There seem to be a lot of losers on the album, I suggest.
"There're a couple of winners, too," responds Fagen swiftly. "The guy who gets the runaway to stay in his apartment in Gramercy Park is in some way, I think, a winner."
"He's certainly jubilant about it!" quips Becker.
"And the couple in 'Gaslighting Abbie' who are trying to dispose of the wife in the triangle," continues Fagen, "even though they seem to be some kind of psychopaths, they're also very cheerful in the way they're going about their business."
Something similar might well be said of Becker and Fagen themselves, albeit on a less dangerous level, of course. Like Warren Zevon, they seem to delight in peeling back the tenuous veneer of civility that masks humanity's darker urges, standing back and chuckling as their characters stumble deeper into social quagmires of their own devising. But, also like Zevon, the humour is tempered by an obvious affection for their protagonists, particularly those ostensible losers most closely aligned with the Beat tradition of outsider integrity, like the bookshop worker in "What A Shame About Me" who's "stackin' cutouts at the Strand" (a famous remainder store on lower Broadway) when he bumps into an old college chum who's since become a huge Hollywood success.
"We've had a number of beat characters in our songs over the years," agrees Becker, "who have expressed the idea that they understand full well in what way and to what extent the deck is stacked against them, and they accept it with humour and resignation."
"And in some way," adds Fagen, "they invite or infer some kind of outsider status. And I think there's something healthy about the attitude of the protagonist, he has a certain integrity. We're not 50-year-old guys working in bookstores, but sometimes I think we feel like 50-year-old guys working in bookstores.
"With everyone, no matter what level you're at or what you did in your life, if people are honest I think the things you think are gonna happen when you're an adolescent, it never works out exactly that way, and when you get to the place that you wanted to be, it turns out to be not what you thought it was. It was easy for us to write, in that sense."
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