Steely Dan were on a roll when the rock duo (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) released Gaucho in 1980. It reached nine on the album chart, with “Hey, Nineteen” becoming a number ten single. Big FM radio, 1970s hits (“Do It Again”, “Reelin’ in the Years”, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Black Cow”) made this run of seven albums in 11 years the most successful mash-up of rock and sophisticated jazz elements, not to mention lyrics rife with obscure references, in history.
Then Steely Dan broke up. After a series of personal crises, Becker moved to Hawaii, and Fagen made some solo albums. They hadn’t toured as a “rock band” since 1974 anyway, so it seemed that one of the most successful songwriting and recording careers of the prior decade had come to an end.
Though the boys put together a band and started touring again in 1993, an album of new songs would not arrive until 2000’s Two Against Nature. Over that 20-year gap, times changed. Though that record won the Album of the Year Grammy, it was one of those Grammys that felt utterly out of sync with pop music in 2000 — it beat out Eminem‘s The Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead‘s Kid A. Even diehard Steely Dan fans (and there were many fewer of them, and they had much grayer hair) felt sort of queasy about it.
Three years later, Beck and Fagen released Steely Dan’s final album, appropriately titled Everything Must Go. The reception was lukewarm, with Rolling Stone’s Robert Christgau calling it “overfamiliar … its value ultimately reduces to textured dimensionality and tasty licks”. Indeed, by 2003, there wasn’t much interest in a “classic rock” album of middle-aged cynicism that combined a dim view of the cyber-society with Steely Dan’s prototypical slippery-slick jazz/funk. Hip-hop was ascendant, and the rock of that year was either genital-driven (Linkin Park) or a hip combination of sincerity and authenticity (The White Stripes). Steely Dan were dead or, at best, pooped out.
The Steely Dan-naissance Is Now in Effect… Mostly
Now, with two more decades of distance from their last incarnation–and more than five decades since their first record–Steely Dan are seen favorably again. Local music scenes are filled with Steely Dan tribute bands; John McWhorter wrote a doting piece about the laudable ambiguity of the duo’s lyrics in The New York Times; and even Pitchfork, which sneered at the likes of Steely Dan back in its heyday, is re-reviewing the seven classic records, giving them stratospheric scores. This middle-aged stuff (it always sounded that way, even in the 1970s) suddenly sounds sophisticated and smart once you catch up with it.
Why was Steely Dan revived in the eyes of critics and Millennials? Some of that may be the aging — dare we say maturing — of the hipper-than-thou. But part of it may be that what sounded, throughout the 1990s, like too much studio gloss, became state-of-the-art in the new century. Now, everyone can hear what lies under the surface because the slick surface is everywhere in the 2020s.
The “DIY” musical culture of 1990s indie rock was often referred to — favorably — as “lo-fi”. Being rough around the edges was proof that your music was sincere, heartfelt, authentic, and not corrupted by the record companies that created the arena-rock bloat of the late 1970s and 1980s. Back then, the only way to get music with tons of studio gloss was by spending money. Having your music sound lo-fi was proof that you hadn’t sold out.
But by the 2000s, DIY music production no longer needed to sound scruffy. Kids with laptops and their copies of Logic or ProTools were creating beats and soundscapes that sounded perfect. Kanye West didn’t need to pay studio musicians or rent out Electric Lady Studio in New York to give his records the gloss, the sheen, the glimmer of “hit records”. What was once only possible if you had someone like Roger Nichols making Aja or Katy Lied sound like gold– well, it was now coming from a thousand MacBook Airs in bedrooms coated with Cheeto dust.
To hate those first seven Steely Dan albums — some palpably old music — because it didn’t sound as crappy as some other old music hardly makes sense anymore. Plus, those old DanSongs were full of humorous cynicism about power, capitalism, and loser-dom. What could be more Millennial than getting into that stuff?
Yet, the music that Becker and Fagen made 20 years after their AOR radio run through the 1970s — the albums Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go — have been immune to the Dan-naissance. They remain out in the cold. Particularly, that final record, we contend, is ripe for reclamation. It is another masterpiece.
Two Against Nature (2000) Is a Darkly Baroque Pop Album
Becker and Fagen, out on the road for some years, at last playing the old 1970s hits, had fine-tuned a band of studio pros who could and did play anything at any level of intricacy and precision. So, as they turned to writing songs together again, the songs reflected what was possible. Two Against Nature‘s opening track, “Gaslighting Abbie”, weaves together a highly detailed funk groove (rambling bass lick, intersecting funk guitar, and keyboard licks), a snaking melody shaded with unusual jazz chords, call-and-response with their crack background singers, and horn patterns that are part James Brown and part Gil Evans. There’s a hip-bop bridge; a break with a unison part of Rhodes, electric bass, and bass clarinet; and (of course) a closing saxophone solo by Chris Potter. Two Against Nature continues apace: complex, ingenious, and lyrically rich.
It’s another terrific Steely Dan album, to be sure. But not one to welcome in listeners in 2000, and one that the old fans didn’t feel contained any new “hits” to replace their affection for “Do It Again” or “My Old School”. The catchiest song, “Cousin Dupree”, is written in the voice of a shameless creep coming on to his cousin. She turns him down. Why? “Maybe it’s the skeevy look in your eyes / Or that your mind has turned to applesauce, the dreary architecture of your soul”. He replies, “But what is it exactly turns you off?” There’s the new Dan — still weird and still funny, but now weaponized against radio play.
Inevitably, the curdled characters and jaundiced eyes that played as almost wistful in the age of Taxi Driver come off as too deliberate on Two Against Nature. But what else could fans do but embrace it? The buzz the record generated was unparalleled. The band that everyone discovered just as they disappeared had been revived. The cover of Alive in America, a 1993 live record of their second “reunion” tour, featured an old-movie mummy carrying a swooned damsel, with a mummy expression on its face as surprised as anyone to find itself still erect and functioning. That was them — and their fans.
Folks were flipping their shit in anticipation of new songs, teased by a Flash website with clips of tunes that sounded like the Dan but also like something much weirder. And when it finally dropped, many couldn’t believe the tart little cupcake it turned out to be. Both in the “out” and arty chord changes of little dark pills like “Almost Gothic” and “Negative Girl” (with characters who were the bizarro mirror of whatever “manic pixie dream girl” you might have been expecting in the new millennium), and the pervasive voice of — it must be said — remote rock star excess.
To make it an even more jagged pill, those songs were leavened by some of the most harrowing and moving accounts of late-stage addiction and early-stage sobriety ever committed to tape. “West of Hollywood” unfolds the “gnarly downside” of drug-fueled bad crazy that “The Needle and the Damage Done” (and their own “Hey Nineteen” and “The Boston Rag”) left out. “Jack of Speed” unfolds the heartbreak of trying to stay in a relationship with someone who is “skating backward” into oblivion and the ultimate need to “grab some things and head up into the light” and hope your lost loved one finds a way to join you. The title track is hard to read except as a hyper-literate account of one friend getting sober through the eyes of the other–a pair who would be, then, the “two against nature”, bonded to overcome unruly compulsions, “take the fire mop, make it kitchen clean.”
Fagen and Becker navigated very heavy waters in the two decades between “Gaucho” and “Two Against Nature”, and it shows. They seemed to want you — dare you – to see it. The Grammy sweep was obligatory and compensatory since they had retired from the field in 1980 before anyone could weave the laurels they richly deserved. The “lifetime achievement” recognition seemed like a victory lap, frankly. a pretense to begin the lucrative greatest hits tours, Stones-style that they had denied themselves in the 1980s. Maybe Steely Dan even enjoyed it, now that stage sound was tolerable, and the green rooms were plusher in the new VIP arena world.
The Uncharacteristic Final Steely Dan Album Is One of Their Best
Everything Must Go (2003) came along with astonishing speed just three years later.
It was, in contrast to Two Against Nature, straight-forward and relaxed. Over their long history, it seemed like every Steely Dan album would (infamously) up the ante on the prior record in intricacy and fussy sonic purity. But now, in 2003, when new, inexpensive technology allowed anyone sitting on their bed with a laptop to sound as slick as Steely Dan — the final record is more straightforward. Not airtight. Not keeping the heart on the outside so much. It still sounds crisp and tight, but it is Steely Dan’s loosest, least perfected by studio musicians album since their debut.
After years of the bass chores being handled by the likes of Chuck Rainey, the root of Everything Must Go is all Becker, who plays bass on every track. After Steely Dan’s legend was built on bringing in a dozen different studio players, none of whom seemed able to nail the brief guitar solo on “Peg”, who is the primary guitar soloist here? Becker again. The final album — and the question inevitably is whether they sensed this is what it was — would not be the product of years of obsession. It would be, dare we think it, fun to make.
There’s a lightness to the stories within the songs as well, as if the demons exorcized and the poisons purged over the previous years had finally been left behind for good, or at least for a day at a time. Once you are no longer concerned with the grind of maintaining and recovering from “the tyranny of the disallowed” — what are you going to fill your days with?
Probably the things you enjoyed beforehand: puns and whack changes and pulp sci-fi novels and in-jokes. Your oldest friends, who – despite having hurt each other so much – are still the ones you did all your stuff with, and the ones that know all your stories.
That can be pretty great. While every Steely Dan album must have a couple of edgy characters with Pynchonesque names (“Slinky Redfoot and his trusty angel girls” make an appearance), they aren’t pushers or pimps in bad sneakers this time around, but cartoon cosmic assassins on a contract to take out God. William Gibson and David Lynch’s fantasies edge out Kids Charlemagne or Show-Biz. Even the “skeevy” men and toxic women of Two Against Nature have been replaced by the namesake of “Lunch with Gina”: not a dangerous speed freak “zooming on a couch somewhere” but merely an ultimately-charming bore we are glad to hang with even though we say we aren’t. Which perhaps aptly characterizes the whole outing: a good hang with old friends, despite it all.
“Things I Miss the Most” may be a song about the end of a relationship, but it comes with actual nostalgia. The narrator is lonely — he claims to “kinda like frying up my sad cuisine / Getting in bed and curling up with a girlie magazine” but admits that “sometimes in the corner of my eye I see that adorable ghost”. But when he thinks back, he not only misses the things he lost in the divorce (“the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard”) but also: “the talk, the sex, somebody to trust”.
Which doesn’t mean things don’t go dark sometimes. The record was released in the long shadow of 9/11 and concurrent with the tech crash; we can’t hear the fin-du-de-monde overtones of the opening and closing songs of the record without having them in mind. The winged chariot is always drawing near to men of a certain age, perhaps especially those who have skirted the edges of mortality and found their way back. (Fagen would release an entire solo “death album” three years later, and even more directly oblique references to what W.C. Fields called “the man in the bright nightgown” are found there.)
But the darkness in Everything Must Go comes with a literal laugh. The crack squad of assassins in “Godwhacker” casually refer to their almighty target as (William Blake’s) “Big Tiger” and “poppie”. God — with his “stank attitude” — has committed “crimes beyond imagining” that have resulted in a “bounty on your face”. It sounds pretty grim. But the chase is framed as a literal cartoon: “Be very very quiet,” the narrator says, echoing Elmer Fudd searching for Bugs Bunny. The tune itself is a snappy 12-bar blues with a jazzy bridge, a simple pop tune by Steely Dan standards. That rippling guitar figure that kicks it off evokes the James Bond theme. The death of god? It’s an action movie, just as “Pixeleen” is a hack bit of sci-fi manga “shot all in digital video for a million and change” that’s good for a bit of titillating entertainment in these days of decline.
But make no mistake, however, recovered and rested and ready we might be for what’s next, we are entering the last days.
So, Everything Must Go opens with another toe-tappin’ modified 12-bar blues. “The Last Mall” marries a White Noise American consumer sensibility to a feeling of impending apocalypse. Yes, the world is ending, but are we stocked up? Not with hardtack and ammo, but with “the medicine for the blues / sweet treats and surprises / for the little buckaroos”? It includes a nod to the “new frontier” of the early 1960s — the nuclear age, which probably occasioned the “big adios” — with a lick from Donald Fagen’s 1982 solo tune “I.G.Y” buried in the last bridge. We knew something like this was coming all along, didn’t we? “Kiss the checkout girls goodbye” and duck and cover, the boys tell us, but do make sure you have enough Twinkies.
The final title track truly lands the theme. If you are new to Steely Dan, and all these shiny surfaces have dazzled but ultimately lost you, “Everything Must Go” says the quiet part loud. An imagined burn-it-down party at a failed Silicon Valley start-up is the setting for perhaps the grimmest, most-resigned lines in their whole songbook:
We gave it our best shot
And keep in mind we got a lot
The sky, the moon,
Good food and the weather.
Can anybody get lucky twice?
Wouldn’t it be nice?
Can it be the sorry sun is rising
Guess it’s time for us to book it
Talk about the famous road not taken
In the end, we never took it
And if somewhere on the way
We got a few good licks in
No one’s ever gonna know
‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business
Everything must go
Becker would live another 14 years after the record was released; Fagen still thrives today. The Fagen-fronted “Steely Dan Orchestra” has had several sold-out tours since, with and without Becker. We don’t know if they decided in 2003 that this would be the last Steely Dan album (Fagen has since confirmed there will be no more recordings under that name). But it is hard not to understand this last song as THE last song, deliberately, with the only thing that will ultimately be true for all of us and all we know and touch. It all must go.
Wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh.