The Observer, The, 9 May 1993
by Simon Reynolds
With their jazz-tinged soft-rock and mordant lyrics, Steely Dan were critics's favourites and a staple of FM radio throughout the Seventies. After classic albums like Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, and Katy Lied, and hits like 'Rikki, Don't lose That Number' and 'Reeling In The Years', co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went their separate ways in 1981. Fagen quickly resurfaced with The Nightfly, an elegant and witty album of veiled autobiography, concerning the dreams of a late Fifties/early Sixties adolescent caught up in the anticipation of Kennedy's New Frontier.
But after this successful album, Fagen succumbed to a mid-life crisis and a severe writing block. "I fell into a depression," recalls the singer, who is now 45. "I wrote every day but disliked what I produced. I went into psychotherapy, and eventually realised that I'd run out of steam."
In Fagen's absence, the legacy of Steely Dan lived on. In northernmost England and in Scotland, a crop of groups emerged – Prefab Sprout, Danny Wilson, Hue and Cry, The Kane Gang – who aspired to Steely Dan's blend of opulent music and sardonic lyrics.
One band, Deacon Blue, took its name from a song on Steely Dan's Aja LP. Even more unlikely, mellow rappers De La Soul sampled a lick from 'Peg', another Aja track.
Eventually, Fagen "figured stuff out, went through a transformation," and re-emerged. His creative ducts started flowing again, and the result is a new solo album, Kamakiriad. Set a few years closer to the Millennium, it's a concept album in which a Fagen-like protagonist sets out, in his ecologically sound, steam-powered Kamakiri car, across an American landscape that's alternately futuristic and decrepit.
Fagen admits that it's a science fiction allegory of his Eighties experiences, although the word 'allegory' makes him grimace: "I remember they were always the most boring things to read at school. I hope the album isn't as dull as Pilgrim's Progress. But, yes, it's a journey of loss. I like the sci-fi idea because it divorces you from the present. It lends itself to a mythic, heroic plot, gives the story a magical quality. Plus you imagine all kinds of marvelous technologies."
From Steely Dan through his solo records, Fagen's work turns around a paradox: his music is steeped in the lush romanticism of jazz, but his lyrics are suspicious of romance, even cynical.
"Odd, isn't it?" laughs Fagen. "I've grown more suspicious of romance as I've grown older. When Walter Becker and I were first working together in the late Sixties, we were jazz fans, but the vocabulary of jazz had already been co-opted for commercial purposes. Our idea was to use that already corrupted vocabulary, with its romantic connotations, and combine it with anti-romantic lyrics."
The burnished, deluxe quality of Steely Dan's music was, it seems, always ironic. "It was pseudo-opulence. I remember that as a child I was conscious of the world moving from the aesthetic of the immediate post-War years, which seemed authentic, to the Fifties aesthetic, which seemed inauthentic. That pseudo-luxe sound I use is a symbol for a loss of authenticity, which was exchanged for an illusion of the good life. To this day, my parents' values are still bound up with comfort and convenience. A lot of values were dropped after the war. So I grew up with the paradox that the music I love, jazz, was commodified before I was even born."
On Kamakiriad, Fagen is still playing his favourite trick of juxtaposing romantic music was with anti-romantic lyrics. The song 'On The Dunes', he says, "has a very romantic setting, but it's where the character reaches his lowest point," while 'Counter-Moon' is about "a moon that makes people fall out of love."
'Tomorrow's Girls' likewise concerns relationships going sour. "People change, and the extreme case would be if you woke up one morning and you’re suspicious that the woman in bed with you is actually an alien. I've put the song into a sleazy B-movie context, where aliens are replacing yesterday's girls with pseudo-women."
But the album ends happily in 'Teahouse On The Tracks', when the hero reaches a nightclub in a run-down urban zone called Flytown. Fagen admits it's a very old idea: "dance away the heartache".
The making of Kamakiriad saw Fagen reunited with his former partner, Walter Becker, a development which may presage the resurrection of Steely Dan. Lacking confidence, Fagen felt he needed someone to lean on. He and Becker have a telepathic understanding when it comes to making music, he says, and, they share a sense of humour. "I know when we've done something good because we start laughing at it. That's how I respond to excellence. I don't relate to art that doesn't have a sense of humour."
I like the obvious things you hear on the radio - especially "Reeling" - but I've never managed to get fully into Steely Dan, despite a couple of efforts over the years. It's a bit too smart for me - "smart" in both the non-scruffy, un-scuffed superslick sheen sense and the clever-clever encrypted 'n' oblique sense. I don't see why I should be having to sit there puzzling out what a song is saying (come right out with, man - time is short!). The cynicism that must have seemed so bracing and so valuable in its bleak disillusion in the Seventies amidst the surrounding soft-headedness .... it doesn't appeal that much nor seem necessary or remarkable in a New Wave, post-Costello world.
But I love love looooove The Nightfly, so much more open-hearted and lyrically direct.
Kamakiriad is not a patch on it, sadly. I remember getting to hear the album for the first time in a Manhattan listening session shortly before the interview - maybe even the same day - through some kind of incredibly expensive hi-fi set up, or possibly even off the mixing desk in a recording studio. Massive speakers, sound so crisp. A couple of the tracks in particular sounded incredibly burnished and intricate, like your ears were staring into the inner workings of a clock, copper and silver cogs whirring and interlocking in perfect precision. Unfortunately, listening at home later on, off a compact disc on a much lower-end music system, the effect was more of a fussed-over sterility.
Very nice guy though, Mr Fagen. I enjoyed meeting him, which is more than can be said of my other broadening-my-range Observer feature of that era, which entailed visiting Paul Simon at his office in the Brill Building.