I may lose my status as a Steely Dan fan for saying this, but with the exception of the Dan’s Grammy-winning 2000 comeback Two Against Nature, Donald Fagen hasn’t made a compelling record since his 1982 solo The Nightfly. The solo albums that followed were particularly dreary: tepid lite-jazz arrangements that tended to drag on too long and had congealed into formula. I wished someone would prescribe Fagen some musical Viagra.
Thus I approached Fagen’s new Sunken Condos, his first record in six years, with dread. My first impression after a casual listen was not positive: A lot of seemingly earnest songs about an attraction to a much younger woman, as if the cradle-robbing stoner of “Hey Nineteen” was given a new forum to plead his case. Lyrics about seeing the world clearly now. An Isaac Hayes cover, for God’s sake. Songs with horn charts that sounded recycled from Aja.
But then I noticed that the rhythms had more snap and funk than usual, with a bass line that could have been described by the title of the lead track, “Slinky Thing.” Tracks were more concise; only a few meandered past five minutes, and even then not by much. I noticed new sonic touches: muted trumpets, Gypsy violin, vibraphone solo. Best of all was lead guitarist Jon Herington, whose riffs alternated between quietly lyrical (“Weather In My Head”), aggressively clipped (“The New Breed”) and skronky (“Good Stuff”). The production seemed richer and livelier than any Fagen music from the last decade. Besides, what was wrong with sounding like Aja?
I re-examined the lyrics – always a good idea with Fagen – and discovered that while they were less enigmatic than usual, they still had bite, complexity and a surprising amount of heart. The songs about a much younger love also evoked an awareness of aging and passing time humorously. (“You look at me and think, ‘He’s ready for Jurassic Park.’”) The song about seeing the world clearly was actually a break-up song and was often so overstated (“I can hold my breath for a really long time now”) that it made me wonder if Fagen’s narrator was suffering from a unhealthy, and intentional, dose of self-delusion. The Isaac Hayes cover, “Out of the Ghetto,” was a bouncy track with klezmer touches that Fagen explained in an interview were meant to reclaim the Jewish roots of the word ghetto.
I fell in love with a few of the tracks. “Weather in My Head,” in which even hippies have given up, felt like balm to this longtime depression sufferer. (“Here comes my own Katrina / Levee comes apart.”) The rollicking “Good Stuff,” which features a catchy piano riff that I’d bet a dollar was stolen from a jazz classic the way the opening of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was copped from Horace Silver, is narrated by a hired Prohibition-era goon celebrating after successfully knocking over a rumrunner’s delivery.
My favorite, however, sounds like a discarded track from Aja. “Miss Marlene,” apparently based on a true story, pays tribute to a talented young female bowler – there’s a rare subject for a pop song! – but also relates her sudden demise in an accident after trying to drink away a love disappointment. The final verse, in which the ghost of Marlene’s hand guides the narrator’s hand on league night, is one of the sweeter things Fagen’s ever written.
Sunken Condos isn’t quite the compelling record I’d been craving; the songs from the back half of the album hold my attention more firmly than those on the front half. Still, it’s pretty close. I’ll dub it Aja II.