For many fans of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen’s snakeskin voice is the sound of college, the start of intellectual life and newly won independence from parents’ clutches. Today, he’s the overlord of the territory where jazz, R&B and rock intersect. In this bump-and-grind world, horns come and go, a harmonica wails, a rock guitar weeps, an organ mutters, the beat is strong, and lyrics are about sound textures, wordplay and rich imagery.
“There’s a crateful of lead-line pipes/A photo of laughing Navy types/On the island East of the Carolines/Lovely island” —Memorabilia
Sporadically, Donald has released four solo albums apart from Walter Becker. These include The Nightfly (1982), Kamakiriad (1993) and Morph the Cat (2006). Last month he released the long-awaited Sunken Condos (Reprise) and it’s his best yet—loaded with sauntering riffs, hypnotic melodies and tough-luck characters.
“Four old hippies drivin’ in the rain/I asked for a lift—they said: Get used to the pain/They gonna fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what’s to be done/Lord—’bout the weather in my head.” —Weather in My Head
Donald’s imagination ages well. As with Steely Dan’s Hey Nineteen and many of his solo songs here, lyrics center on older guys and their drive to remain sexually relevant with much younger, tireless women. Song themes dwell in a spongy zone between wolf whistles and AARP cards. On his new album, older guys get lucky but then must live with their Faustian bargains—keeping women half their age entertained and satisfied while listening to them yammer about things that are alien and meaningless.
“We went to a party/Everybody stood around/Thinkin’: Hey, what’s she doin’ with a burned out hippie clown/Young dudes were grinnin’/I cant’ say it didn’t sting/Some punk says: Pops you better hold on to that slinky thing.” —Slinky Thing
In this regard, Donald hasn’t gone the way of so many other classic rockers—strutting around on stage in tight leather pants, talking about rehab, or wearing baseball caps. His music fully embraces the male aging process, which is what makes him cool. He’s observing—watching girls go by and minding his own business, even in bowling alleys:
“Your move to the lane child/Played on my heartstrings/With your long skinny legs child/And your hoop earrings/When the stakes were sky-high/That’s when you’d always shine/The ball would ride a moonbeam/Down the inside line.” —Miss Marlene
And then there are songs that drop all pretense and get to the heart of the matter—an older guy caught in a young girl’s web. In Donald’s songs, guys who took their youth for granted become resigned to the passive role they must play in their latter stages. As if awaking on the back of a wild horse, these guys seem caught off-guard and baffled as they hold on—trapped between what they were trained to want and what they no longer can physically handle.
“When we go out dancin’—she’s always the star/When she does the Philly Dog—I gotta have CPR/She put on a dress last night made of plastic wrap/It was off the hook—crazy sweet/What everybody’s wearin’ on Planet D’Rhonda” —Planet D’Rhonda
Like guys who yearn for a Nedicks hot dog or an Orange Julius—fine things that once existed but don’t any longer—Donald’s characters are rooted in ’60s nostalgia but set in today’s bitter reality. And throughout the songs, a baritone saxophone barks, trombones and trumpets sigh, the bass bounces, a marimba mocks and the ubiquitous older dude gives his leather jacket a tug and is on his way. It’s Donald’s world. We just age in it.
Morph The Cat, the final volume of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly Trilogy, which appeared in 2006, is introspective and jittery, reflecting the cumulative impact of 9/11 and his own sense of encroaching mortality – making it at once the darkest and most personal chapter in the Steely Dan canon. While Morph was a musically dazzling and emotionally intense work, it would have been a distressingly bleak way to close the book.
Happily, solo album number four – which arrives with little advance warning – dispenses with mortal dread as Fagen re-immerses himself in the finer things – or the “Good Stuff”, as he puts it in one song – amid the life challenges facing aging Boomers (Fagen is 64).
As these nine tracks make abundantly clear, his current mood is reassuringly effervescent and self- mocking. Sunken Condos is loaded with Fagen’s instantly familiar signature moves, as he breaks out his long-codified and precisely calibrated vocabulary. Here there’s righteously swingin’ grooves (powered by drummer “Earl Cooke, Jr.”, whose name curiously fails to come up in a Google search), extended chords (there’s no chord too obscure for this crew) from a superb (what else?) studio band led by co-producer/multi-instrumentalist and Dan mainstay Michael Leonhart, and Donald’s sharply drawn, irony-laden narratives.
The album’s bookends, “Slinky Thing” and “Planet D’Rhonda”, revisit the generation- spanning romantic escapades of Gaucho’s “Hey 19”. In the opener, fueled by a groove that matches its title, the narrator is “a burned-out hippie clown” who meets and tries to put the make on “a lithe young beauty”, to the amusement of observers as the mismatched couple makes the rounds of various public gatherings. Here and elsewhere, the rich tones of latter-day Dan guitarist Jon Herington provide the ultra- cool counterpoint to Fagen’s decidedly uncool leading man in his increasingly desperate attempts to “Hold on to that slinky thing”.
The closing “Planet D’Rhonda” finds an older guy lusting after a chick who’s “somewhere between nineteen and thirty-eight”, and “When she does the Philly Dog – I gotta have CPR”, though the poor schlub knows full well that “It’s never gonna happen”. Coursing through the track is some wild post-bop improvising from jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the aural equivalent of the narrator’s racing pulse.
The sense of yearning for the unattainable is also played out at the album’s midpoint on “The New Breed”, wherein a similarly love-struck dinosaur (“He’s ready for Jurassic Park”) is dumped by his girl in favor of the young dude who upgraded her software, so the old-timer steps aside, leaving her “To your new dotcom slash life”. Fagen’s propensity for embedded mysteries has rarely been more intriguingly manifested than it is on “Memorabilia”, a song as slippery as it is catchy, with its references to US nuclear tests in the South Pacific during the 1950s. In the hook-filled “Miss Marlene”, the protagonist finds love in a bowling alley, of all places.
The album’s most sublime piece is “Weather In My Head”, a modified midtempo blues in the manner of “Pretzel Logic” and another scintillating workout for Herington, with its slam-dunk payoff, “They may fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what’s to be done/Lord –’bout the weather in my head”. The lone misstep is a cover of Isaac Hayes’ 1978 funk workout “Out Of The Ghetto”, but the band blows through it with such exhilaration that Fagen can be forgiven for this indulgence.
What, then, does this new, post-trilogy work represent for Fagen? A second wind? A therapeutically induced acceptance of things as they are, perhaps? In any case, Dan aficionados will undoubtedly receive Sunken Condos as a fascinating new puzzle – or series of puzzles – to be endlessly debated if never actually solved. What matters is that Donald’s in back in his self-referencing sweet spot, and all’s right with the world.
It took Donald Fagen nearly a quarter century to release his Nightfly Trilogy, which started with 1982’s ‘The Nightfly’ and wrapped up with 2006’s ‘Morph the Cat.’ ‘Sunken Condos,’ the fourth solo album by the Steely Dan singer, is a slightly looser record than its predecessors, with more emphasis on groove this time around. And it sounds like it could be the next chapter in the solo odyssey Fagen started 30 years ago.
Maybe it has something to do with his recent tour with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, which included soulful old friends Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs, or maybe it has to do with the 64-year-old Fagen settling into his AARP years, but he doesn’t sound so uptight here.
And let’s face it: Steely Dan were one of the ‘70s fussiest bands, so obsessed with getting every single detail right in their songs that they quit touring in the middle of their peak decade (they finally hit the road again in support of Fagen’s 1993 album ‘Kamakiriad’ and Steely Dan’s 2000 comeback LP ‘Two Against Nature’).
Either way, ‘Sunken Condos’ is jazzy, bluesy and as musically precise as anything Fagen has recorded, with or without Steely Dan. No surprise, since many of the musicians have played with him in one form or another over the years. And he still doesn’t take the short way around. Most of the nine songs make room for efficient solos, tasteful backing vocals and the cleanest production this side of the late 1970s.
The aptly titled ‘Slinky Thing’ serves as both album opener and mission statement. ‘I’m Not the Same Without You’ packs a slithering disco beat straight outta Fagen’s best years. And the cover of Isaac Hayes’ ‘Out of the Ghetto,’ while sort of an odd choice, manages to be funky in a Los-Angeles-session-musicians kinda way.
Still, Fagen sounds distanced from ‘Sunken Condos,’ which isn’t so surprising given Steely Dan’s sardonic treatment of everything from the coked-out L.A. music scene they helped forge to their own faceless fame. It would be nice if his view of the people and places he observes here wasn’t so telescopic. Making a connection once in a while actually might do this perpetual smartass some good. But that’s never been Fagen’s thing. Just because he’s getting older doesn’t mean he has to brighten his outlook.