This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… Donald Fagen, The Nightfly August 25, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
It’s very hard to add to what Robert Christgau wrote about this album back in 1982 when it first appeared but hey, that’s never stopped me in the past.
The Nightfly [Warner Bros., 1982]
Apparently, what Walter Becker brought to Steely Dan was an obscurantism that lost its relevance after the posthippie era. With words that always mean everything they want to say and aural pleasures that signify, these songs are among Fagen’s finest, and if their circa-1960 vantage returns us to the student memories of Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic, their tenderness is never nostalgic and their satire never sophomoric. Fagen’s acutely shaded lyrics puts the jazziest music he’s ever committed to vinyl into a context that like everything here is loving but very clear-eyed, leaving no doubt that this is a man who knows the limits of cool swing and doesn’t believe the world was a decisively better place before John Kennedy died.
And while that was a little harsh on Steely Dan, though truly that was a band of its time, he was spot on about all else. Listening to it shortly after it was released it was revelatory to me, and even if it was perhaps a fraction too fond of its own classicism – that jazz pop sound was both a reference to a canon and subsequently an influence on lesser works in more of a pop vein, that hardly mattered a whole lot when one is 17, hasn’t heard the classics to begin with and likely wouldn’t without pathfinders like this. And in a way it operated in a similar way to punk and post-punk, opening up musical horizons.
With sparse but oddly busy arrangements, a strong jazz inflection, but not an overwhelming one, it had a determinedly modern feel – for the time it was released. And that characteristically crisp guitar – ported neatly from Steely Dan, that prevented it from being too smooth. Add to that small but thoughtful touches like the party sampled at the end of “Ruby Baby” and this was an oddly but engagingly cinematic album to listen to.
But to get caught up in the classicism is to miss a key element, that of cynicism – a cynicism that had characterised Steely Dan (and which I suspect people love or hate), and that was in some way refined here. These aren’t a simple and comfortable set of songs which depend on nostalgia alone to give them effect but instead are suggestive not so much of the of the actual world of the early 1960s that was lost – though that is part of it, but as much if not more so about the world that was portrayed then as the future (and even for those of us born in the mid 1960s and growing up in the 1970s that was our future too).
And there’s another aspect to this – lyrically – that was also different to almost all the music I was listening to during that period, music that tended to celebrate (or commiserate with) the very concept youth. This did that to some extent, but it also seemed to ask what comes next in one’s life? But its flip dismissal of the options available (granted to someone in the US middle class) seemed to undercut them almost entirely, and foreshadow the cultural and other shifts that would take place over a few short years later.
This comes over as often political, a sort of reactive frustration with the world as it is and as it would be. And if that worked on numerous levels, take the title track, which cynically stripped away the glamour from the role of the radio DJ – and took a well aimed dig at consumerism – while simultaneously celebrating it, then all the better.
It that quality which makes tracks like “IGY” or “New Frontier” so haunting in their steely eyed appraisal of that future lost. And of course both songs are intrinsically and, arguably, explicitly political, the latter rooted in the discourse of the Kennedy years, the former with a vision of a technocratic vision of the future underpinned by a profoundly ironic chorus. But then again when it was released in 1982 those concerns of the late 1950s and early 1960s of nuclear warfare had returned with a vengeance – something that Fagen deliberately points to (and the video for “New Frontier” obliquely references that it was no picnic either – note the CND symbol that flashes up at the end of the video).
But the rest of the album is well worth examining. Consider “The Goodbye Look’s” near cold-eyed dissection of Americans abroad set to a cool and entertainingly upbeat jazzy score. “Ruby Baby” (a cover of the Lieber and Stoller original) is both a remarkably pretty and as it wends it way (to my ears at least) an increasingly creepy paean to unrequited and unrecognised love. Or the closing track, “Walk Between the Raindrops” which eschews the cynicism for a breezy romanticism.
I’ve never checked out any of his later solo material – though Steely Dan became a firm favourite, in part because I’ve never wanted these songs to be abraded by others that while perhaps formally equally good could never match up to them. And that may be a mistake on my part. But I’ve often listened to this album in the thirty odd years since it’s release and found it almost invariably worth the effort.
Walk Between the Raindrops