So what impact will Steely Dan have on narcissistic youth in the year 2000?
Fagen: "We're looking for global domination."
Becker: "I think this is gonna pretty much change everything."
I would love to have seen all my friends' faces when Steely Dan's Two Against Nature was announced as the winner of the Album of the Year Grammy in 2001. Just when they thought the folks at the Recording Academy were getting with the program, here they go giving the whole enchilada to these inaccessible old fogies who hadn't released a record in 20 years. How could Two Against Nature possibly compete with the latest Beck, Radiohead and Eminem? (And who was that Paul Simon character who got nominated too?) Well, as I was only too happy to inform them, Two Against Nature was a masterpiece from two seasoned veterans of the music industry who had perfected their craft into an artform of biting lyrical wit and offbeat jazzy tunes. That didn't really shut up 'em up, but it should have. I need to run with a new crowd.
Since their 1980 release, Gaucho, the Dan had ceased to exist and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the only two members of Steely Dan who have ever really counted (at least in their minds), helped each other put together a couple solo albums but, for the most part, they took it pretty easy. Fagen released The Nightfly to some acclaim in 1982 and no more was heard from the duo until the early 90s when the gears started turning again. In quick succession, Fagen and Becker each released a solo album, Kamakiriad for Don and 11 Tracks of Whack for Walt. Author William Gibson's eloquent explanation was that "Mistah Steely Dan ... proved so problematic an entity for the both of them, so seductive and determined a swirl of ectoplasm, that they opted to stay the hell away from him for twenty years", but it was as Steely Dan that they produced their best work, and so they reunited for a series of tours that would span the following decade.
It was inevitable that with all this collaboration they would to come up with something more than clever anecdotes and expositions for their website, and thus was born 2vN. The songwriting sessions began in 1995 and continued through 1999 before the album's eventual release in February of 2000. One major change of pace for the band lay in the album's production. Not since their second album, Countdown To Ecstacy, way back in 1973, had Fagen and Becker produced their own work. Gary Katz, their producer, had become the only other regular in the Steely Dan recording studio, where studio musicians came and went in the blink of an eye. Nonetheless, for 2vN, the duo took up the production mantle once more.
It has always been hard to categorize Steely Dan. Some argue that all their music sounds the same, others that no two songs sound alike. Certainly, their influences are myriad, but what to call it? A little blues-rock, a dash of jazz-pop, a smattering of elevator music... Whatever it was, it was brilliant, though not very cohesive. Upon listening to Two Against Nature, however, one gets the impression that this is what they were aiming for all those years. In the interim, they had matured as songwriters and lyricists to the point that they had it down pat. This was what Steely Dan was supposed to sound like.
The album's brilliance is spread about equitably. Every song is a jewel, with a million facets to explore and appreciate as it sparkles in the light of the receptive listener. It's nothing like any other album out there and you have to be willing to let it take you where it has to go, but if you do, you will find a musical monument of unmatched magnificence. The crisp guitar jags, solid roving bass lines, elegant, but robust horns and the mellifluous backing vocals overlay Fagen's unpolished and unpretentious singing as he weaves his entertaining musical tales and colorful character sketches. The lyrics are as much of a treat as the music that is their vehicle. Becker and Fagen's way with words and clever turns of phrase are even more in evidence than in their previous albums and their songs are almost as nebulous as ever.
2vN opens with this light and slightly spastic song who tone belies its dark lyrics. It tells of a criminal couple, in love with each other and their own deviousness. The song is accentuated by quick, arpeggiated guitar licks and the rise and fall of the backing vocals. The title refers to the 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie Gaslight.
What will it be - some soothing herb tea?
That might be just the thing
Let's say we spike it with Deludin
Or else - maybe tonight a hand of solitaire
what a shame about me
This second song has a very New York feel to it, as does much of the album as Fagen and Becker have spent the last few years living there. The story is about a chance meet between two people who had dated in college and lost touch with each other since. They compare notes on each other and their college buddies, with the narrator lamenting his lack of success. A typical story of hard times in the big city, the loss of hope and missed chances. This one follows the format of most songs on the album, a few verses, a brief solo and bridge, one more chorus and a longer solo and fade. Its sound is also quite typical of the jazzy sound of the album.
I said babe you look delicious
And you're standing very close
But like this is Lower Broadway
And you're talking to a ghost
Take a good look it's easy to see
What a shame about me
two against nature
The title track's lyrics sound almost...reggaelike. Quick, almost rushed, they paint a picture of a two man team of "problem solvers" and the problems they solve for people by somewhat drastic means. A quick and colorful piece, one of the few without much in the way of a solo.
Call your doctor - call your shrink
Western science she strictly rinkydink
They all masissi but we hang tough
Apsatively gonna help you beat that stuff
The first of the album's three songs about intriguing young women. In it, an older man falls in love with and courts a young (underage, in fact) runaway, most likely a prostitute. He wines and dines her and is altogether infatuated with her, claiming she brings the sparkle back into his life, though not exactly because of her witty repartee, if you follow my meaning. Really, it's about a sleazy, pathetic middle-aged man too weak to resist his weaker urges. Another sprightly, laid-back jazz tune, topped off with one of Chris Potter's many excellent sax solos on the album.
Let's plan a weekend alone together
Drive out to Binky's place
The sugar shack in Pennsylvania
Or would that be a federal case?
The second portrait of a young woman, though this one is exquisitely self-possessed and intimidating to the narrator. He can't tell if she's interested or just stringing him along, but he'd follow her anywhere because she's so intriguing. The music and the lyrics match better in this piece than in most on the album. This one's upbeat, picking up and dying back, then leaping into the chorus before sliding back into the verse again, every bit as capricious and exciting as the woman it's about.
She's old school then she's like young
Little Eva meets the Bleecker Street brat
She's almost gothic but it's better than that
jack of speed
This is actually my favorite Steely Dan song. There is something about the way the bass, guitar and horns play off each other then jump together, meshing into a melodic and catchy melody that draws you in and doesn't let you go. The casual guitar work and strong and steady horn part contrast splendidly as the songs dials its way up and down the intensity meter. The song is about someone counseling a friend to give up an addiction and divorce themselves from the "jack of speed" before it's too late.
You maybe got lucky for a few good years
But there's no way back from there to here
He's a one way rider
On the shriek express
And his new best friend is at the throttle more or less
This song is downright hilarious. It's jaunty and fun, telling the story of a shiftless young wanderer who becomes infatuated with his own cousin, seeing no logic in the cultural taboo against incest. She rebuffs his advances, but he remains clueless, still looking for that elusive kiss. This song won the Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
She said maybe its the skeevy look in your eyes
Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
The dreary architecture of your soul
I said - but what is it exactly turns you off?
The last of the character sketches, and actually the most forgettable song on the album, though not without its charms. The narrator is regularly jerked around by his cold, on-and-off-again girlfriend. She leads him on, tells him she needs him, then she's nowhere to be found, but he can't get himself to give her up. It's a fairly sparse song and without a real clear melody, but its structure lends it a level of energy that it would otherwise lack. Smoothly, but dynamically, it slides between chorus and verse, yet another dose of the Dan's cool, cool jazz.
A goof - a buzz
If that is what it was
Then how do you explain
The way she looks when she's
Dragging me out to dance with her
In the summer rain
west of hollywood
One of the best songs on the album, West of Hollywood is about a brief day in the sun for a young man until he's borne away into the sea by the tidal wave of life in L.A. and left cold and empty. The lyrics are clever, the story compelling and the music drives you right through the piece. The repetition of the suspension "...and I almost got there..." just pulls at you until it gives way to the next verse. The last instance of the chorus leads into an absolutely stellar tenor sax solo by Chris Potter that is easily the most energetic part of the album, and also the longest solo.
I was Kid Clean
She was Anne de Siecle
Just a thrill away from punching through to the cosmic wow