When the composing duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — usually known as “Steely Dan” — re-emerged in 2000 after a 20-year absence from recording, it became immediately apparent that there would be no Keeping Up with Joneses. Steely Dan was uninterested in sounding like other bands during their 1970s heyday, and Mssrs. Becker and Fagen are even less interested in being “contemporary” today. They make slick, harmonically sophisticated, sardonic pop music that is deeply informed by jazz and rock but that — ultimately — is its own cul-de-sac in American music.
Morph the Cat is the latest product from the Dan imprint. And though it is a solo album written and produced only by Donald Fagen (The Dan’s singer and co-composer), it is inarguably a Steely Dan album in musical approach. Recorded by the very nearly the same band as Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (particularly, Jon Herrington on guitar, Keith Carlock on drums, Walt Weiskoff on saxophones, and many others), Morph brims with tight but light funk grooves, astonishing harmonic twists going into choruses or bridges, and creepy, funny, mad lyrics that tell stories too dark for most pop music. The guitar and saxophone solos are serpentine and brilliant, and the singing — both Mr. Fagen’s flexible but sneering lead and the gorgeously layered backgrounds — is pitch-lovely.
The question of whether you’ll like this music will be based almost wholly on your gut-level feeling about Steely Dan as a whole. If you’re one of those in-my-DNA Steely Dan-haters (you know who you are: you are under 40, think Steely Dan sounds like smoove jazz with vocals, and find the whole thing contrived and plastic, utterly without soul), then this is a big-time PASS for you. It is slick-o-rific. But for those who love The Dan’s bop-cum-funk mixtures juxtaposed with sick stories, well — you’re in for the usual treat.
Lyrically, Morph the Cat is a logical successor to the first two Donald Fagen solo albums, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad. While Nightfly was set nostalgically in the 1950s and ’60s of Mr. Fagen’s youth, Kamakiriad and Morph are present tense missives from middle-age and late middle-age, respectively. The one significant difference between “Steely Dan” and “Donald Fagen” is the personal cast to the stories Mr. Fagen chooses to tell on his own. This time around, our narrator faces mortality on his home turf of 9/11-shaken New York City. The Old Bastard Death hangs around many of these songs like a bad smell, mixed whenever possible with the usual Dan/Fagen sense of creepy horniness.
Thus, in “Security Joan”, a slippery blues with all manner of harmonic elaboration, the narrator tries to explain to the alluring airport security officer both that “I’m not a terrorist” and that she is more than welcome to confiscate his shoes and perhaps his other clothes too. “The Night Belongs to Mona” describes a “child of the night” who’s become a hermit in her 40th-floor New York apartment, likely because of “the fire downtown / that turned her world around.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Fun” also cloister themselves “inside this house of light”, hiding from “psycho-moms / and dying stars / and dirty bombs”. No doubt, it’s an album of nightmares wrapped in crystalline music — particularly “Brite Nightgown”, a series of three dreams of Donald Fagen’s meetings with the Grim Reaper: a deadly fever, a sucker’s mugging, and an overdose. Fagen dresses this tune in a jumpy vocal that sounds as much like Prince as it does like Steely Dan — a falsetto octave syncopatedly set against the funk.
The title track is about a ghostly feline who floats over the whole city, visiting upscale apartments, playground basketball courts, and even Yankee Stadium, maybe a cousin to the devil who pads about the Russian novel The Master and Margherita cutting deals and promising a reprieve from the hardest thing there is. And Morph offers a few reprieves of its own. The “single” is “H Gang”, a story of a charismatic band that rises and then fades into MTV obscurity — perhaps the opposite of Steely Dan. It bops with fine pop pleasure. Better, though, is “What I Do”, a dastardly clever conversation between the ghost of Ray Charles and a young Donald Fagen seeking romantic tips. “I say, Ray, why do girls treat you nice that way?” Brother Ray replies: “It’s not what I know, what I think or say / It’s what I do.” You won’t find a better description of Ray’s music than this: “Well, you bring some church, but you leave no doubt / As to what kind of love you love to shout about.” This one is also a blues, but a gorgeous catchy blues with tasty stop-time for the piano and guitar.
Despite the craft in this music — no, because of the craft in this music — most younger fans will run from Morph like it carried the very plague. No question, this album sounds uniform and rather overpleasant — engineered to a sheen of perfection by Elliott Scheiner. If that makes baby-boomers nostalgic and cozy, remembering cruising in their 1974 Camero listening to Aja, it’s not really Donald Fagen’s fault. He is still making — unapologetically — some very beautiful and very weird music that comes through the gate like a Trojan Horse and then explodes with disturbing imagery.
Indeed, “Mary Shut the Garden Door” is about that very topic: “They came in under the radar / When our backs were turned around / In a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars / They rolled into our town / Confounded all six senses / Like an opiate in the brain”. Morph the Cat works very much the same way. At first it sounds perhaps too much like Two Against Nature or Gaucho, but it insinuates. The melody of “The Night Belongs to Mona” is unique and sturdy as rock, the intimacy of “What I Do” is as vulnerable and intimate as anything on The Nightfly, and the death-groove of “Brite Nightgown” is sung and played with good nastiness. All this great stuff creeps out of the belly of Morph at midnight. My recommendation: keep your eyes — and ears — open.