As sophisticated icons of contemporary pop music, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have secured a space within the landscape of modern mainstream culture. Beginning with 1974’s Pretzel Logic, the pair would lead Steely Dan through a number of quintessential albums that featured a slick blending of pop and jazz sensibilities and even today songs like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Black Friday,” and “Hey Nineteen” ring true for fans from multiple generations. And while at times they have been criticized for a clinical precision that puts their music on the lightweight side for some, their ability to stay true to a recognizable identity despite the changing fashions of the past 30 years is somewhat of a marvel.
After 1980’s Gaucho, the Dan called it quits, aside from two solo albums by Fagen and one from Becker. Then in 2000 Two Against Nature appeared as the Dan’s first album of all-new material since 1979. It would also bring them four Grammy awards including Album of the Year. Based on the past track record, one had to assume that the hiatus before a follow-up to Two Against Nature would prove lengthy. But here we are, a mere three years later, with Everything Must Go, and even though its predecessor is arguably a tough act to follow, the results are nothing short of spectacular. From the first notes of “The Last Mall,” that signature sound is omnipresent, albeit with a slight shift in modus operandi. This time around Becker and Fagen would choose to use a core group of musicians as a rhythm section and record everything pretty much live with little overdubbing.
Adding to their repertoire of distinguished characters, this time around we meet several new personalities. On “The Things I Miss the Most,” our leading man laments the loss of his woman, but then goes on to rave about a materialistic longing for his Audi TT, ’54 Stratocaster guitar, and houses “on the Vineyard” and “on the Gulf Coast.” There’s also a return of the clever non-rhyming meter that was so sagaciously utilized on “West of Hollywood.” For “Godwhacker,” a funky groove akin to “Jack of Speed” gets feet tapping but tells a darker tale of a hired gun. Then there’s “Pixeleen,” a sordid tale of virtual sex, ending unexpectedly on pianist Bill Charlap’s ascending flourish.
As par for the course with the Dan, it’s worth perusing the guys’ lyrics in and of themselves for a taste of literary genius. Crafty references abound – “Another Tanqueray,” “Dropped on the streets of Roppongi,” and “The new cashier looks like Jill St. John” – and the message becomes more important than the flow of syllables. Take for instance a day in the sun as described in “Blues Beach,” where Fagen delivers the mouthful “We could rent a paranymphic glider, my hypothetical friend.”
Typical of the group's finest moments, Everything Must Go works its way into your subconcious and lingers long after the last notes have disappeared. It is this type of craftsmanship that Dan fans have always admired and this one will make the grade as well without a hint of reservation.
Personnel: Walter Becker (guitar and vocals) and Donald Fagen (keyboards and vocals) with various artists
including Bill Charlap and Walt Weiskopf