Steely Dan sound like a million dollars not only next to at least 26 of their coresidents of the Boss 30 when they’re in it, but also in comparison to three-quarters of the stuff with which they share FM needle-time.
The lead singing of Donald Fagen, which sounds to these old ears like a strange hybrid of the Mike Love of “California Girls” and pre-motorcycle-wreck Dylan, is engagingly distinctive.
The words, while frequently not easy to get the definite drift of, are almost always intriguing and often witty. And they mount them on accessible tunes punctuated by quite nice harmony-laden refrains.
Instrumentally, they (and the studio pros they’ve recruited to accompany them on record) are veritable paragons not only of dexterity but also of taste. And, unlike 95% of the people currently making “serious” music, they know when to shut the hell up — neither a solo nor a whole track lasts longer than one wants it to.
Why, then, do I — without the slightest intention of undermining anyone else’s enthusiasm for it — find myself not caring if I ever again hear any of Steely Dan’s music up to and including Katy Lied?
It has to do primarily with the fact that, however immaculately tasteful and intelligent it all may be, I personally am able to detect not the slightest suggestion of real passion in any of it. Fagen’s singing is indeed engagingly distinctive, but for me the accent’s a little too clearly over the distinctive: It sounds as though he’s a great deal more concerned with style than with expression.
When it comes to the words he’s singing, I feel all too frequently as though I must choose between concluding that I’m a thickhead and suspecting that the Dan lyricist either is too lazy to make his stuff penetrable or else is oblique simply to conceal the fact that, however facilely he may string together unusual and interesting images, he really hasn’t much to say through them. While such typical lyrics as, “Throw back the little ones/And pan fry the big ones/Use tact, poise and reason/And gently squeeze them”* greatly interest me, I can make only the wildest guess as to what Messrs. Becker and/or Fagen wanted to tell me about their perception of the world.
Likewise, the instrumental statements — by Dan perennial Denny Dias and an awesome array of guest stars — are a great deal more impressive for their taste and proficiency than they are moving.
Thus, while I can scarcely help but be at least a little grateful for it in this, the year of Barry White, Steely Dan’s music continues to strike me essentially as exemplarily well-crafted and uncommonly intelligent schlock.
*©1975, American Broadcasting Inc.