The title of Steely Dan’s first album in 20 years hints at what we’ve known all along, that the band consists of two people butting heads against the “natural” order of pop music. Singer-keyboardist Donald Fagan and guitarist-bassist Walter Becker are oddball loner perfectionists, not the sort to get heavy rotation on MTV, but heroes to an aging generation of brooding would-be intellectuals. These fans will find that Two Against Nature has everything they used to love: thick bass lines, funky-yet-restrained rhythm guitars, intriguing horn charts. Becker and Fagan’s songs have always been among the most literate in rock and roll, and the new numbers are no exception. Like Randy Newman, Becker and Fagan write dramatic monologues—the characters are despicable yet interesting, lovably slimy. Native New Yorkers, the two Dans are drawn as much to Hollywood decadence as they are to the downtown chic of the Lower East Side.
Inevitably, Two Against Nature evokes all the Steely Dan albums that have come before it. The intro to “Jack of Speed” references the riff to “The Royal Scam.” The extended, jazzy solos are reminiscent of 1977’s Aja. Unfortunately, the women in the songs are the same old femme fatales. There is “Janie Runaway,” an updated version of Gaucho’s “Hey Nineteen,” who inspires her infatuated older lover to ask, “Who makes the morning fabulous? / Who says today’s a fun day? / Why do I feel like sailing again? / Honey, it’s you.” The sex kitten in “Almost Gothic” is all the more alluring for being such a bitch: “I’m pretty sure that what she’s telling me is mostly lies / But I just stand there hypnotized.” And the less said about little cousin Janine in “Cousin Dupree,” the better.
Because there is nothing essentially new here, those who disliked Steely Dan before will continue to criticize the band for hawking their slick, high-brow funk. Even afficionados will have to admit that Fagan’s voice is nothing near the instrument it was when the Dan released their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, back in 1972. It’s grown thinner, raspier; he whispers now where he once crooned. Fagan has always relied heavily on back-up vocalists, but he seems especially dependent upon the other singers here, especially Carolyn Leonhart.
Still, two decades is a long time to wait for a new record by two such talented men. If the songs are longish, clocking in on average at over five minutes, there is a sense that nothing is rushed, that every nuance is fully explored. Becker and Fagan have too many ideas to have been away for so long. It’s good to have them back.