THE NATURE OF STEELY DAN

Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:5 November 2021 

THE NATURE OF STEELY DAN

It was no secret. Steely Dan fans knew the 1980 LP Gaucho was the last offering from studio perfectionists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They’d reached a pinnacle of consummate musicianship with their penultimate album Aja and were done with Dan. In fact, they were done with each other.

So the buzz of excitement around a mid-90s Steely Dan tour was intense. When the inevitable live album came out in 1995, it seemed that was as good as it was going to get. Donald Fagen had a successful solo career and, let’s face it, the Dan seemed like a 70s artefact; seven meticulously crafted albums frozen in amber for all time.

Then, amazingly, Steely Dan released a new album of new songs. It was called Two Against Nature and came out at the beginning of a new millennium. Long time fans wrestled with conflicting emotions. New Steely Dan! Could it possibly be any good? How could another record, twenty years later, hope to join the ranks of those peerless albums of yesteryear? Anticipation and anxiety battled it out until we got to purchase and process this new record. The sighs of relief were audible around the world… or at least that bit of it who love Becker and Fagen’s literate, jazz-inflected rock. Two Against Nature may not be a "top three" Dan record but it is very good. Excellent, even. The London Times wrote, "this is one revival that has been worth the wait". Others agreed: the album won a bunch of Grammy Awards in 2001 and catalysed another successful world tour.

So the re-release of this 2000 LP is very welcome, both for fans wanting to complete their Dan collection on vinyl, and for new listeners curious about the sardonic jazz-rock world of Steely Dan.

Two Against Nature opens with "Gaslighting Abbie", a slick, funky tale of a man and his lover playing mind games with his wife (the reference being to the 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie Gaslight). It’s cool and cruel and features Chris Potter on tenor in the extended outro.

A strength of Steely Dan lyrics has always been the story. "What a shame about me" is a tale of disappointment and failure over a funky foundation. This is nostalgia of the grieving, fatalistic kind, though the music grooves smoothly. The pace steps up with the title track, a slice of highly polished electro-pop, before another of those Dan stories of middle aged men seeking revitalisation through liaisons with much younger women. Remember "Hey, nineteen" on Gaucho? "Janie runaway" is just as infectious and even more unsettling. Along similar lines is "Cousin Dupree", which found success as a single. This one has loads of sly humour, especially in the young woman’s glorious put down of said cousin, observing "the dreary architecture" of his soul. Still, sometimes it is advisable to go with the groove and not dig too deeply into the lyrics. It’s also worth remembering that these urban storytellers grew up with Raymond Chandler and a fondness for B movie sleaze; literature and jazz nerds more at home in a darkened cinema than the outdoor setting on the album cover. In direct sunlight they fade to shadows.

One of the satisfying aspects of Two Against Nature is how it references the sound of Gaucho, recorded twenty years earlier, but is a clear development. These chaps know exactly what they are aiming for—jazz tinged, funk infused, literate adult rock—and they know how to get it. The result is a crisp, polished album that, twenty years on from its initial release, sounds fresh and engaging. To release anything less would be against the nature of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

 

© Bruce Jenkins 2021


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