Sure, Steely Dan are a decade or two late in delivering Two Against Nature, their follow-up to 1980’s Gaucho. But time may finally be on the side of rock’s most illustrious music geeks. The old knock on Steely Dan was that they were too good for their own good — if Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had recorded a studio album during rock’s extended Amateur Hour of the early Nineties, they might have been publicly flogged. Unlike their El Lay-based muso contemporaries, Steely Dan managed to mix their craft with some truly crazy shit — slick-sounding songs about perverts, assassins, divorcees and other non-strangers. We should have expected no less from a band named after a dildo, albeit a hugely literary one.
Two Against Nature is Dan defined. The album mixes world-class chops and jazzy, postgraduate soul sound with some wonderful, vague storytelling (sample simile: “sizzling like an isotope”). As always in Steely Dan’s marvelously impressionistic world, we often don’t know what the hell the people in the songs are actually doing, but we’re pretty damn certain that they shouldn’t be doing it at all. Still, what makes Two Against Nature work isn’t its cerebral ellipticity but its stunning musical clarity. That’s all the more impressive because the album is less a summit of super sessioneers (… la the group’s past efforts) than it is a showcase for what Steely Dan’s core twosome can do — reluctant guitar god Becker remains a fluid, precise player, while Fagen covers the keyboard waterfront with a variety of jazz and R&B styles. Also shining are the assorted drummers, including Vinnie Caliuto, Ricky Lawson and particularly the great Sonny Emory.
The immediate grabber here is “Cousin Dupree” — a bouncy midtempo charmer that has a little of the dirty-older-man magic that helped make Gaucho‘s “Hey Nineteen” an enduring anthem for every Humbert Humbert wanna-be. Also memorable are “What a Shame About Me,” which has a “Deacon Blues”-like charm, and the more luxurious, autobiographical sounding “West of Hollywood.”
Two Against Nature gets a little chilly here and there, but that sort of cool has long been a part of the Dan’s distinctive nature. Here’s hoping these two kids pick up the pace so we can get a few more albums out of them before all of us stop reelin’ in the years.