Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Doing It Again

In 1980, topping off the active phase of their strange career as pop interlopers turned AOR powerhouses, Steely Dan scored their third and final Top 10 hit: "Hey Nineteen," in which a class-of-'67 "dandy of Gamma Chi" came on to a girl too young to remember Aretha Franklin. As music, it was smoothly seductive, all tasty off-harmonies and jazz-lite pulse. As seduction, however, it was slightly sickening--half whine, half bribe. Lamented singer and lyricist Donald Fagen: "She thinks I'm crazy/But I'm just growing old." Fagen was 32 at the time.

Shortly thereafter, Fagen and his chum Walter Becker showed just how old they felt by retiring. They'd always hated the rock life anyway--not just touring, the whole mess of having a band. Holing up for months diddling sonic details they dug, but not the interpersonal stuff. Having bestowed upon us two Doobie Brothers and a clean-cut blond vocalist who was never heard from again, they abandoned all pretensions to collective camaraderie by contracting out the priciest studio guns in El Lay--swinging perfectionists from the Crusaders to Toto, typified for me by pet guitarist Larry Carlton, who can say nothing with more taste and dexterity than any alleged jazzman ever to lick his chops. But if you want to blame Carlton for 1977's Aja, the band's blandest and most commercially decisive album, you'll have to explain how come he's all over Fagen's wonderful 1982 The Nightfly. Steely Dan is Fagen and Becker--everyone else is an instrument. They need snazzy ones because they specialize in chords most rock and rollers can't play. So rock covers of their perverse low-life lyrics and scrumptious melodies are almost nonexistent. But Doc Severinsen did one once, and next time you're stuck in an elevator, keep your ears peeled. Muzak loves these guys.

Muzak has no doubt helped keep them flush since 1981, along with songwriting and production work, sampling royalties, a grand total of three solo albums, and the two tours they ventured in the '90s. But for 20 years Fagen and Becker have lived primarily off their small, lovingly tended catalogue of sound recordings: seven albums, a few compilations, and in 1993 a meticulously remastered box, Citizen Steely Dan, that rather than dangling the usual add-on dreck upheld their sonic principles by making room for just four nonalbum cuts, only one previously unreleased--and that has since been surpassed, for reasons they'll happily detail, by the reremastered single albums they put out later. Their exacting, articulate, affluent cult is loaded with audiophiles as well as supporting schools of exegetes who'll go to their graves pondering the hidden meaning of "Brooklyn owes the charmer under me."

And in this new millennium the exegetes finally have something new to dissect, because for the first time since 1980's dispirited Gaucho Steely Dan has finalized some new material: an album called Two Against Nature, not a bad slogan for a matched pair of urban cynics. There's nothing expedient, rote, or stillborn about this return to the racks. As a Steely Dan fan from the moment the vicious cycle that is "Do It Again" snuck onto AM radio in 1972, I hear it as almost a rebirth, closer in mood to the elitist effrontery of their first four albums than the accomplished slickness that gradually took over. But it's different from both, as after 20 years it had better be. The music turns Aja's fusion-pop mode jumpier and snappier, sourer and trickier and less soothing--postfunk, whether anyone will admit it or not. Even more important, the impenetrable lyrics have moved decisively toward the literal. Sure you can debate the precise meaning of "Who makes the traffic interesting?"; they're doing it in the chat rooms right now. But Two Against Nature is so thematically unified it almost has a concept, one familiar to admirers of "Hey Nineteen"--and a dandy for a rock comeback, too. Clearly and explicitly, Two Against Nature is an album about old men trying to get laid.

Rocking past your prescribed time doesn't oblige you to feign "youth," especially if you weren't so crazy about either rock or youth to begin with. But for damn sure the possibility is going to occur to you. And now that Fagen and Becker have passed 50 it becomes clear that they have a unique solution to this problem. Thrown together, they're permanent college boys, tied to the roots of their relationship at small, arty, expensive Bard. The bull-session one-upsmanship of their synergy suggests nothing so much as a less slapstick version of National Lampoon, which was very much a reflection of the same '60s worldview (meaning early '60s worldview) the solo Fagen celebrated--rather more lyrically than he ever gets with Becker--in The Nightfly. And they're premature pseudosophisticates to this day. Their cynicism, their obscurantism, their compulsive cleverness, their devotion to agreed-upon totems of musical cool--all are hallmarks of the kind of bond that develops between too-smart sophomores who aren't as sure of themselves as they pretend to be, especially around women.

There are nine songs on the new album. In the relatively cryptic opener, loosely based on an old Ingrid Bergman flick, hubby and "ripe and ready" new flame drive wife crazy by the sea. Then a fortysomething clerk at the Strand doesn't have the gumption to go home with the movie star he went out with in college. Then the title tune, about voodoo, the exception to the theme. Then a painter rejuvenated by jailbait Janie angles for a three-way with her friend Melanie. Then a sloe-eyed Little Eva of Bleecker Street has our protagonist "sizzling like an isotope." Then he's saving a honey from a speed freak, sex just a subtext in this one. Then Dupree gets turned down by his all-grown-up little cousin Janine in the most savory lines of the record: "She said maybe it's the sleazy look in your eyes/Or that your mind has turned to applesauce/The dreary architecture of your soul/I said--but what is it exactly turns you off?" Then another mercurial narcissist jerks our man around. And finally a hot affair between Kid Clean and Anne de Siecle slips "below the horizon line"--apparently into therapy, which the Kid apparently needs big time. Do you still think I'm making this concept stuff up?

OK, not concept--that was the silly sci-fi of Fagen's Kamakiriad. Say instead that sex here is somewhere between controlling metaphor and shared obsession. The likelihood that the songs are fictions, based like most fictions on observation--the music business is a petri dish for such stories--doesn't mean they aren't also fueled, like most fictions, by personal experience. But who knows whose autobiography ended up where? Certainly not us exegetes. Although convention attributes all Steely Dan lyrics to Fagen, whose solo albums are far more literary than the plain-spoken Becker confessional 11 Tracks of Whack, Becker is plenty verbal--his 1996 tour letters at set the band's sardonic public tone, full of false leads and backhanded putdowns of people you didn't know existed. And while Fagen married the formidable singer-scenester Libby Titus in 1994, Becker seems something of a man about town. So I can't escape the feeling that a lot of the content is Becker's even if the words and details aren't. This band isn't just a working partnership, CSNY sans applesauce. It's a collaboration at a very deep level.

Though the songs are fictions, they're also revelations--glimpses of middle-aged sophomores looking for validation and the kind of excitement they always held at a distance in the end. Far removed classwise from the petty loserdom of Katy Lied and Can't Buy a Thrill, they're full of heady infatuations and random acts of cruelty, self-interest and self-hate, vicious cycles blowing hot and cold. Precise, hip, worried, waiting by the phone for a negative girl or brimming with pedophile delight at a runaway's cute sexy ways, Fagen always conveys the urgency of attraction. Whether the objects of desire are young or not, which is usually left unspecified, they got the juice, so that the metaphor is less being able to get it up than being unable to restrain yourself, which is the first thing fiftysomethings miss when their libidos begin to run down--and also the difference between a rote comeback and a near rebirth.

If the price of making a good record is looking like dirty old men, Fagen and Becker have no qualms about paying. Long ago they began their careers as staff songwriters, and for all their jazzy proclivities, song is their element. Imagine the incredibly skilled and through-composed music alone and it's pretty annoying--Medeski Martin & Wood without that band's showoff eccentricity, which in this context would come as a relief. Contemplate the lyrics just as writing and they're also pretty annoying--the superannuated sex fantasies of the rich and neurotic. Put the two together and you have the stuff of great rock and roll that no one has ever come close to duplicating--not even worthy inheritors like Tom Ze and Freedy Johnston. Male computer nerds who've mastered a culture of affluence without making sense of their sex lives should listen up. They won't learn a damn thing, that's not really the idea. But they'll feel a little less alone.

Village Voice, Mar. 14, 2000