With each successive album, Steely Dan’s popular success and appeal become more obscured by sundry admirers’ claims of abstruseness and complexity. To some it seems inevitable that the Dan will eventually produce the Finnegan’s Wake of rock. And that’s silly: Steely Dan is trying just as hard as any random country/disco/metal band to capture our attention, i.e., sell records. For all their jazzy influences, they are a florid rock band, immersed in popular concerns and styles. True, songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bow to no one in the matter of composing immaculate, catchy cul-de-sacs, but it is that same immaculateness, the way the words, as impenetrable as they may appear, fit with metrical seamlessness into the melodies that makes their impenetrability of little importance to any casual listener caught up in the sound of the entire song.
That said, one must immediately note that their latest, The Royal Scam, is the Dan’s most atypical record, possessing neither obvious AM material nor seductive lyrical mysteriousness. It also contains some of their most accomplished and enjoyable music.
The core of the Steely Dan sound is the interplay of sharp, even grating, lead guitar (most often that of Denny Dias) and the cushion of Fagen’s various keyboards, always smooth, gliding, pulling the rest of the composition along. It has always been the hard nasal edge of both the lead guitar and Fagen’s vocals that rescued the band from slickness, and on The Royal Scam this contrast is more obvious and effective than on any previous record.
In fact, such is the pervasiveness of both musical and narrative tensions that the overall feeling of Scam is one of just that: tension. There is little of the self-confident gentleness that dotted Pretzel Logic, less still of the omniscience that suffused Katy Lied. The Royal Scam is a transitional album for Steely Dan; melody dominates lyric in the sense that the former pushes into new rhythmic areas for the group (more “pure” jazz, semireggae and substantially more orchestration than before) while the verbal content is clearer, even mundane, by previous Dan standards.
While Scam is certainly not a concept album, every song—with the possible exception of “The Fez”—concerns a narrator’s escape from a crime or sin recently committed. Becker and Fagen have really written the ultimate “outlaw” album here, something that eludes myriad Southern bands because their concept of the outlaw is so limited. Rather than just, say, robbing banks (“Don’t Take Me Alive,” in which the robber is a “bookkeeper’s son”), Becker and Fagen’s various protagonists are also solipsistic jewel thieves (“Green Earrings”), spendthrift divorcÃƒÂ©es (“Haitian Divorce”) and murderously jealous lovers (“Everything You Did”).
But the Dan’s outlaws are also moral ones, guilt-ridden over comparatively minor sins. (Last time out, remember, Katy’s chief offense was that she lied, after all.) “Kid Charlemagne” is a selfish egotist, and suffers for it; “The Fez,” a sort of Dan-esque answer to Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” concerns a rather pathetic, if kinky, megalomaniac. At their best, these songs yield up concise surrealist introspection; at their worst, they suggest a paranoic death wish that is very amusing, if a bit unnerving. The lyrics are also pretty histrionic, and perhaps should not be scrutinized too solemnly.
In any event, I doubt that Steely Dan will ever become merely precious or insular; through five albums they have consistently circumvented their complexity with passionate snaz-ziness and fluky, cynical wit. If The Royal Scam lacks ready-made Top 40 fodder, it also widens Steely Dan’s already considerable parameters. Their next album, if one can speculate about this lovably perverse bunch, should be a pop killer. In the meantime The Royal Scam is well worth living with, pondering and, what the hell, even dancing to.