Everyone with an ear for music has a guilty pleasure. Even those of us who labor in the incredibly profitable field of music criticism are not immune. For every obscure, limited-edition tribal remix that we trumpet, there lurks the well-played Kiss album. Sure, we herald each new face in Britpop like a reinvention of sliced bread, but we really go home and put on some bit of nostalgic earfloss that makes us feel warm and fuzzy.
Mine is Steely Dan.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have created cold, technically perfect and emotionally hollow music for almost 30 years, and short of Kraftwerk, they come the closest to rock music by robot we’ve yet encountered. So why do I enjoy them? Why did I request this CD for review, only to hear the same cuts I’ve heard for years? Is it the wry lyrics of Fagen or the perfection of the A-List studio musicians they assemble for each album? Perhaps. All of their music is neatly mannered, every note in its place. A less rambunctious rock organization can scarcely be imagined, but for me that’s part of their appeal. From 1972’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill” to the latest works, a Steely Dan song sounds incredible in headphones. The songs production seems geared to this format—and the lyrical content, which seem to reflect a very sheltered, solitary worldview, is perfect for those of us who would call ourselves misanthropes—if we could only spell it. The characters of Fagen’s songs all seem to be looking back ruefully at failed relationships—such as “Reelin’ in the Years” or “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”—or dreading the prospect of future entanglements as in “Hey Nineteen”. Heaven knows what it says about me, but “Deacon Blues”‘s “They got a name for the winners in the world / I want a name when I lose” has always struck me as a classic bit of rock poetry. Floating along on a psuedo-jazz backing, the song creates such a feeling of alienation and self-betrayal that at the wrong time, listening to it hurts.
But at other times the world realized by Becker and Fagen strikes as an incredibly funny place—strange, to be sure, but still ironically amusing. Hell, the band took their name from a sex toy in a William Burroughs book. Not exactly starting off the journey on normal street. Listen to the lyrics of “FM” sometime. This strange tale of “grapefruit wine” and “funked-up Muzak”, served up in a nice lush bed of strings and a sax solo, is deceptively calming. Or “Babylon Sisters” refrain of “Babylon sisters shake it”? A very strange song, made even odder by virtue of the fact that it comes closest to being Steely Dan by proxy—Donald Fagen’s vocals being the only contribution from the pair on the track.
I doubt anything I could say could sway anyone into the Steely Dan camp at this late date. But perhaps in admitting a fondness for the twisted lyrics and icy professionalism they embody will give others the strength to admit their secret musical loves. Maybe not. Either way, anytime you feel like mellowing out with the “Cuervo Gold and fine Columbian”, I’ve got the soundtrack.