As someone who’s always actively remained clear of the term “concept album” when discussing their own work, it’s ironic that Steely Dan (who, it should be noted, have never remained clear-actively or otherwise-of irony) would release, in the form of a summertime masterpiece, what is unmistakably and irrefutably a concept album, everything going in songs all the way up and down the album: “all of the standard stuff” (“The Last Mall”); “The Audi TT/ The house on the Vineyard/ The house on the Gulf Coast” (“Things I Miss the Most”); “The sky, the moon, good food, and the weather” (“Everything Must Go”), and that’s just the frivolities, because what’s the sky and the moon up next to the stars and all the universe?
Even heaven gets its due in “Godwhacker,” which is probably the most ingeniously crafted pop song that will be released all year, and certainly the only one featuring the lyric: “We track your almighty ass / Thru seven heaven-worlds”. Just because Jerry Falwell lives in California, the state where Steely Dan sounds the best, doesn’t mean he’ll have the privilege of being offended by them. The Dan has amassed enough wealth to afford them the luxury of keeping their club exclusionary, and with this album they will, unfortunately, probably have to.
Paid-up members of that club will doubtlessly recognize the shameless commercial lobbying going on in the boppy summertime convertible tune “Blues Beach”, which has about as much to do with the blues as John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd did. “Green Book” and “Godwhacker” are as close to perfect as any songs the Dan—or anyone else—has ever released, which isn’t quite the same as calling them great. And true devotees will recognize three songs in particular—“Things I Miss the Most”, “Slang of Ages”, and “Pixeleen”—as belonging to that cache of Dan songs that feature astonishingly sublime choruses, only to be dragged down by verses that can’t keep pace.
What this is is a collection of subversively jazzy tunes which delights in its own cleverness (lyrical and otherwise), and which probably finds its closest companion—among previous Steely Dan albums—in Pretzel Logic. The album finishes on a limp note musically, but as a rounding-up of what is one highly conceptualized piece of music indeed, it couldn’t have been more precious, as the narrator of the title track mourns the dissolution of what is likely a ‘90s-era dot-com, moving “To dissolve the corporation / In a pool of margaritas” while the piano man laments this sad swan song to commerce. And what better way to go out, at least for the time being, for this group of high-concept ironists who have always found their severest preoccupation in what’s timeless?