Twenty years have passed since Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—the dynamically detached duo known as Steely Dan—last played it brutally cool together on a full studio album (1980’s Gaucho). But reeling off all those years hasn’t made the men and their music less enigmatic or, for that matter, more compassionate. On the new Two Against Nature, Steely Dan is up to the same cigar-bar-soundtrack tricks that propelled the band throughout the ’70s—and that keep the band’s devoted, snobby fan base sated today. All the goods are still for sale: self-absorbed lyrics that read like Mad Hatter tea-party toasts, serpentine sax and ax solos, and squeaky-clean jazz-pop arrangements ratcheted so tight that you wonder whether they were imagined by man or machine.
Bearded and bespectacled Becker is still the tech-nerd perfectionist hiding behind guitars and soundboards; beady-eyed and big-beaked Fagen, whose clipped, nasal delivery hasn’t changed a bit since Rikki lost that number, is still the New Yorker-clever party guest who just might make a move on your girlfriend—if he weren’t so busy making a move on everyone else’s. The most welcome element of the band’s return, however, is that which made the group so different in the first place: that tragically dry sense of humor. These men, never known to be emotional heavyweights, still handle life’s problems with flippant jokes and caustic cracks. After all, this is a band that, in its formative years, once featured Chevy Chase as a drummer (he was a Bard College classmate of Fagen’s and Becker’s)—not to mention that it named itself after the infamous lethal dildo in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (which may not be all that funny but does show signs of whimsical derangement).
On Two Against Nature’s “What a Shame About Me,” Fagen, 52, even gets to revisit the role that made him famous: the brutally self-aware loser, last seen floundering on “Hey Nineteen,” the band’s 1980 ode to age difference. “[G]rinding through my day gig/Stackin’ cutouts at the Strand,” the sad-sack protagonist runs into a college flame, now something of a Hollywood success story. She fills him in on “her films and shows and CD’s,” while he relays that he’s “still working on the novel/But I’m just about to quit/’Cause I’m worrying about the future now/Or maybe this is it.” But just before he cuts her loose, unwilling to suck her down into his soul-devouring vacuum, she admits to being significantly less than the “Next Big Thing”: “Well now that was just a rumor/But I guess I’m doin’ fine/Three weeks out of the rehab/Living one day at a time.” It’s all so blissfully Steely Dan: bleats of trumpet and trombone mocking every cruel twist, Becker’s bass line walking hand in hand with the groovin’ piano, Becker’s rock-guitar solo aching throughout, and Fagen twisting lives and love with wry, O. Henry flair—and some raucous Ray Charles-like keyboard antics.
Things get funkier and weirder from there: On “Two Against Nature,” a tropical samba beat, similar to the frame of classic-rock staple “Do It Again,” is tricked up (and sped up) with timbales, clarinet, and vibes. But whereas the lyrics for “What a Shame About Me” are playful and basically understandable, Fagen’s wordplay here is, well, I just don’t know: “T-Bone Angie she champion liar/Sew the mouth shut with rusty chicken wire/Brother Lou Garue and the Jerry Garry/Sprinkling chicken water gonna hush all three.” Beats me. At least it sounds really cool.
In the tradition of “Peg,” “Josie,” and Rikki, there are also, of course, Steely Dan’s expected nods to seemingly unattainable women (and the schlubs who love them): “Gaslighting Abbie,” “Janie Runaway,” and “Negative Girl.” But the woman wreaking the most havoc on Two Against Nature is the Lolita-like Janine, who toys with the unemployed and middle-aged title character of “Cousin Dupree”—possibly the most pathetic hero in the Steely Dan canon—until the guy’s just about to burst: “One night we’re playin’ gin by a cracklin’ fire/And I figured I’d make my play/I said babe with my boyish charms and good looks/How can you stand it for one more day.” Twirling before him in “little tops and tight capris,” she cuts him down with a deadly flutter of her lashes: “[M]aybe 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?” Cymbal beats fuel the smooth pace, and Fagen’s judgmental Wurlitzer provides dastardly oomph to all the punch lines. You cringe; you laugh; you tap your foot: It’s a Steely Dan primer in a five-minute lesson.
For me, it’s always taken some time for the music of Steely Dan—and the even more abstract jazz-pop on Fagen’s two highly recommended solo albums, 1982’s The Nightfly and 1993’s Kamakiriad—to sink in and make sense. At first, admittedly, I just don’t get it (which is also why I don’t like to commingle with fellow fans, who often turn out to be boorish, brainiac assholes). Musically speaking, Fagen and Becker aren’t exactly the biggest huggers: The rhythms and melodies are complicated and elitist; the choruses are sneaky and subtle; and the lyrics are usually as obtuse as an overheard private joke. Stubborn perfectionists who cringe at outside help, they’ve hardly toured at all through the years (you just can’t get the sound right on the road), they very rarely give interviews, and their contact with the public hasn’t exactly been copious. But when everything finally comes together—and Two Against Nature, I’m pleased to report, comes together after a handful of casual listens—the effect is refreshing, satisfying, and relaxing. Unless, of course, you’re stuck in a small room with too many people who feel the same way. CP