Donald Fagen’s new “Sunken Condos” has got to be the funkiest album ever made by a 64-year-old white man. It doesn’t hurt that he threw in a highly faithful cover of Isaac Hayes’ 1977 hit “Out of the Ghetto,” a song he came across while doing research for his R&B side project, the Dukes of September — and, as it turns out, he had an agenda in mind.
“It occurred to me,” Fagen says, straightfaced, “that the word ‘ghetto’ for many decades had been associated only with an inner-city, African-American ghetto. I decided to reclaim the word for the Jews — in the sense of, like, the Warsaw Ghetto. So that a gorgeous Jewish girl could be ghetto fabulous. Like, say, Scarlett Johansson. And you know that Jennifer Connelly is half Jewish, for real? And Goldie Hawn, she was ghetto fabulous in her early days.”
It seems possible that Fagen will spend the next hour or so adding to his compendium of Semitic pulchritude (Mila Kunis? “Deeply ghetto fabulous”), but with some reluctance, he allows the conversation to return to his fourth solo album. It’s one of the few records he has made without any input from Steely Dan’s other half, Walter Becker, who even produced Fagen’s ’93 solo LP, Kamakiriad. “There’s always moments when I’m writing where I think, ‘Hey, Walter, what do you think of this?'” says Fagen, who’s so aggressively laid-back today that he’s only bothered to button his shirt halfway. “But nobody answers, so I just go on with it.”
“WE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT PERFECTION.” —DONALD FAGEN
The last Steely Dan record was recorded with a live band, but Condos is built up from Fagen’s GarageBand demos, with heavily tweaked and looped drums from collaborator Michael Leonhart (who’s also the Dan’s touring trumpet player). “I wanted more control of the details,” says Fagen. But he bristles at the idea that he was ever seeking perfection: “We never thought about perfection. We wanted to sound professional, really — the way jazz people think of professional.”
Condos seems less overtly autobiographical than Fagen’s other solo LPs -it’s hard to find him in the atom-bomb-obsessed femme fatale of “Memorabilia” or the female bowler of “Miss Marlene.” But “Weather in My Head,” a tough blues about depression (“They may fix the weather in the world, just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what’s to be done, Lord, ’bout the weather in my head?”), may be another story. “I’m always playing a character,” he says. “But they’re either a short distance from me or further from me. Here they’re closer to me than they are in Steely Dan records.”
Fagen is also working on a possible book-length collection of his nonfiction writing, which may include a diary he kept on the most recent Steely Dan tour. And will the Dan ever record a follow-up to 2003’s Everything Must Go? “Yeah, possibly. I don’t see why not.”