Doing It Again 

Steely Dan offers a jazzy soundtrack to moral decay and the end of the world.

The musical partnership of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, otherwise known as Steely Dan, has to be one of the strangest careers in rock history, starting with the fact that this AOR staple has never really been that fond of rock. Rather, Becker and Fagen seemed to assemble their sui generis sound from every element tangential to rock-and-roll -- jazz, traditional pop, blues, and R&B. And they eschewed the traditional origin-and-development arc of the "rock band," forming in the studio and pretty much staying there. Steely Dan has almost always been a two-man operation -- with a rotating cast of studio musicians bringing Becker and Fagen's compositions to life -- and the "band" ceased touring after 1974, until an unlikely return to the stage in the '90s.

As a teen consumed by punk, hip-hop, and R&B and who enthusiastically and systematically investigated the classic-rock canon, I never really "got" Steely Dan. Though they have their formidable cult, to young ears that never got to hear them in their own time it was hard to differentiate between the band's all-too-polished pop and the likes of the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise on classic-rock radio. Like Randy Newman, whom I glommed onto early on, Steely Dan's songs were tricky, laden with irony and delivered by untrustworthy narrators, but I never heard that through a sonic aesthetic that sounded like cocktail hour for upscale 40-somethings.

Of course, the very source of Steely Dan's charm is in the tension, such as it is, between the band's low-life lyrics and high-toned jazz-rock soundscapes (a dynamic reinforced by the knowledge that this totem of serious, musicianly respectability is named for a dildo in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch). Those plush, meticulous backing tracks are perhaps best heard as the idealized interior soundtrack of the typical Steely Dan protagonist -- invariably (especially on their two comeback albums) a well-educated and well-off white guy of questionable moral character for whom things aren't quite working out. Fagen has even sort of endorsed this reading by confessing that he and Becker think of their albums as comedy records to some degree.

This eternally collegiate band finally connected with me late in undergrad life when I had a eureka! moment, drawing an unlikely parallel between Steely Dan and my then-favorite band, indie-rock obscurantists Pavement. Minus the Top 10 hits, Pavement was basically the Steely Dan of the '90s, and vice versa. Both bands were the sound of brainy, privileged kids (and in both cases a supplemented duo) experimenting within a collegiate incubator (though Pavement's high school chums Steve Malkmus and Scott Kanneberg didn't matriculate together like Becker and Fagen did at Bard in the '60s). The difference is that whereas Steely Dan was formed in an era when hip college kids would have spent their draft-avoiding years wigging out to be-bop and free jazz, Pavement was born in an apolitical era in which those same kids were more likely to dote on alt-rock heroes like HÅsker DÅ and the Fall.

Like Steely Dan, Pavement's songs were cryptic and suffused with irony, marked by a cerebral coldness and sense of distance that separated them from contemporaries Nirvana and Pearl Jam every bit as much as the same qualities separated Steely Dan from the more conventional rock bands of their era. Pavement's sound -- within the context of the arty alt-rock influences that formed its template -- even evolved into something as accomplished and distinct as Steely Dan: Both bands could be called jam bands for people who don't like jam bands.

I've come to learn, of course, that this personal revelation doesn't always translate; I've been playing Steely Dan around the house all week, spurring my Pavement-loving wife to wonder aloud whether I'm ready for "the home." But the fact that Becker and Fagen's music sounded "old" even when they were in their 20s only made their recent comeback easier: Getting older suits them because they're basically catching up with their own sound.

That comeback album, 2000's cheekily titled Two Against Nature, the duo's first in two decades, was something of an album-length sequel to the band's last hit single, 1980's "Hey 19," in which a class of '67 "dandy of Gamma Chi" tries to pick up a girl too young to remember Aretha Franklin, a mortality-enforcing romantic failure that leaves our hero repeating the refrain -- probably from the confines of his posh Manhattan apartment -- "The Cuervo gold/The fine Colombian/Make tonight a wonderful thing" as jazz-fusion sings him to sleep.

Two Against Nature is similarly consumed with tales of aging men in pursuit of sex, from "Gaslighting Abbie"'s cryptic triangle to "Cousin Dupree"'s attempt to romance the grown-up Janine, whom he played with as a child, to the protagonist of "Almost Gothic," who is so infatuated with a Little Eva of Bleecker Street that he's "sizzling like an isotope."

But most memorable of all is "Janie Runaway," which is every bit as evil and as artful as anything penned by the artist Two Against Nature beat out for its album of the year Grammy: Eminem. It's the story of a Manhattan painter rejuvenated by jailbait Janie ("Let's grab some takeout from Dean & DeLuca/A hearty gulping wine/You be the showgirl and I'll be Sinatra/Way back in '59") who ends the song angling for a three-way with her friend Melanie.

To these ears, Two Against Nature is second only to 1974's near-perfect Pretzel Logic in the Steely Dan catalog, with this year's Everything Must Go a minor disappointment. Musically, Two Against Nature is more percussive and more spiky than Everything Must Go, its sound be-bop and funk to the follow-up's smooth jazz/pop fusion, which is interesting because it makes this two-record comeback a microcosm of the band's first life, with Everything Must Go essentially the Aja to Two Against Nature's Pretzel Logic.

But there's a thematic difference too. Where Two Against Nature saw Becker and Fagen "sneaking up on the new century," Everything Must Go greets the new world in full-on apocalyptic mode. It's easy to read too much into the album's title. After all, Steely Dan's things-fall-apart pessimism has been discernible from their very first single, 1972's circular loser's tale "Do It Again," and the new record's content is clearly given a new dimension by world events. But it's hard to deny the message communicated by the record's bookend cuts: The opening "The Last Mall" is a jaundiced farewell to the civilized world: "Roll your cart back up the aisle/Kiss the checkout girls good-bye/Ride the ramp to the freeway/Beneath the blood orange sky." The closing title tune -- maybe one of the band's finest lyrics -- is a wry tale of corporate dissolution (in which a "pool of margaritas" gives way to some potentially nasty business involving a service elevator and a Handicam) that portends a whole lot more: "Can it be the sorry sun is rising/Guess it's time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We got a few good licks in/No one's ever gonna know it/Cause we're going out of business/Everything must go."

Steely Dan

Shelby Farms

Saturday, September 20th

$45.50 ($50.50 day of show)

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