Those of us a certain age keep hoping that Donald Fagen, as a solo artist or as Steely Dan (with Walter Becker) will move us once again in a special way when he delivers new product to Warners every few years.
But are we right to expect to ride a second wave of nostalgia, from the man who created the first wave of nostalgia? Have we moved on ourselves and maybe don’t have the receptivity anymore?
These must be the kind of questions that run through the minds of those vaguely overweight, bespectacled, moustachioed and balding fans - yea, and that's just the guys - who troop dutifully into concert venues across the USA to hear their beloved Steely Dan. You know what I mean, those expensive-looking tours, usually three (very attractive) female backing vocalists, a horn section and lots of lush, smart sounds, lots of class.
It is now well over 30 years since the release of two classic Steely Dan albums Aja and Gaucho. The latter was followed in reasonably short order by Fagen’s solo masterpiece, The Nightfly. Those albums had the uncanny knack of creating a sense of instant nostalgia, when you got to know them. Which is a kind of a paradox, but, hey, you know what I mean, you might be a Steely Dan fan. If you're not, well you should be.
Fagen is 64 now, but even when he was 34, he was looking back at rain-swept beach places, stoking his melancholy, as it were. Trying to sweeten the pill of loss with funky tunes, and not mix the metaphors. And he is still at some of that on Sunken Condos.
Every single thing on Gaucho, which appeared in 1980, was a stand-out track, so one cannot usefully call Hey Nineteen a stand-out track. So I don't know what to call it, but Hey Nineteen played deliciously with the age gap - the narrator guy was trying to hit on a much younger woman, she didn’t know Aretha Franklin, so the conversation was gonna flag.
The new record’s opening track, Slinky Thing is bang in the same territory. Here goes the first verse: It was a October morning/ Near the carousel/ I met a light young beauty/And we hooked up for a spell/We walked up by the green lawn/ And my heart began to sing/ Mad man on a bench screams out/Hold on to that slinky thing/ Hold on to that slinky thing.
Anyway, they go to a party. Went to a party/Everybody stood around/Thinkin’ hey what she doing/With a burned out hippie clown/Young dudes were grinnin’/I can’t say it didn’t sting/Some punk says pops you better/Hold onto that slinky thing/ Hold onto that slinky thing.
So, a Fagen song where you actually understand the words, and don’t feel you’re reading the answers to a cryptic crossword. And you get the associative argot in the Prohibtion era work-out, Good Stuff, all side-of-the-mouth gangster speak. Good Stuff tonight we jack the convoy/Two hundred barrel run/Trucked in from a brewery in East Patterson/Roll in ‘round midnight/Deliver to the Speaks/All out bubble, no trouble/Whole crew gets to wet their beaks. “ Ah, yes, the `all out bubble', know it well.
The first single from the record, I’m Not the Same Without You is another fully accessible mid-tempo ballad. It’s wistful, although it’s hard to make out whether the narrator is dazed or confused, or both. There are some modest horn flourishes and a Toots Tielemann-style harmonica weaves its way joyfully around the pain. That is if it is pain, it seems more like disorientation and insomnia.
Miss Marlene begins with that warm cluster of orchestrated sound that Hey Nineteen begins with. Indeed, if you are wondering who made some of these warm clusters of sound, a certain “Earl Cooke Jnr” is billed as the drummer on the album. 'Earl Cooke jnr' is the pseudonym for one Michael Leonhart, the long-time trumpeter for Steely Dan and Fagen.
Leonhart is also the co-producer and co-engineer on Sunken Condos and he plays many instruments on all the tracks. On the Isaac Hayes cover Out of the Ghetto, he plays clavinet, minimoog, B3 organ, accordion, Wurlitzer, vibraphone, percussion, and sings background vocals. Phew. Plus he also helped out with much of the arrangements.
Weather In My Head is another strong, likable track, one that, with its grungy guitar from the Dan's lead guitarist Jon Herington wouldn’t go amiss on Pretzel Logic (which album, incidentally is almost 40 years old now.) They may fix the weather in the world just like Mr Gore said/ But tell me what’s to be done about the weather in my head? runs the refrain, Fagen sounding particularly vulnerable, a little heart weary. He can sound the very opposite too, as we all know.
For many the weather on this new Donald Fagen album will seem like a return to clement conditions, and your reviewer expects to get very used to its mild extremes.