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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… Donald Fagen, The Nightfly August 25, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
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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.
Christgau said:

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.

The Nightfly

Ruby Baby

IGY

Walk Between the Raindrops

Goodbye Look

New Frontier

Comments»

1. anarchaeologist - August 25, 2012

Excellent choice WBS, this is an lp which still gets quite a bit of play in our house, for most of the reasons you’ve outlined above. For me anyway, it perfectly evokes that year before going to college and more particularly the idea that your musical taste shouldn’t necessarily be signalled by your haircut. Listening to this turned me on to Steely Dan and a lot of (good) American FM, a territory bands such as Wilco have been exploring for the past year or two again, perhaps to a questionable extent. The Nightfly probably turned me onto, cough, jazz too.

The funny thing about the Nightfly is that it sounds like an album immediately amenable to the CD, with bright guitar, piano, vibes and latin percussion… yet there’s no comparason when listened back to back with vinyl. In fact, it was one of the first CDs I bought (along with a Minutemen CD which had a cover of SD’s Kathy Lied for street cred (mine!)). Where the latter rocked on CD, the Nightfly sounded like the work of a bunch of jaded or wasted session musos, competent in their own way, but listless and lethargic. Get the vinyl! You’d see if for years in the charity shops.

It’s an interesting lp politically too. Not of its time as such, it represented a feeling abroad prior to the US’s becoming a pariah, with perhaps a hint of what was to happen in The Goodbye Look. The survivalist theme in New Frontier was most picked up on in the music press though, with the obvious IGY reference thrown in for good measure. The video for New Frontier is surprisingly subversive when seen today on several levels. I couldn’t see it being made nowadays.

I got the next album Kamakiriad, but it wasn’t as good. Maybe it’s better on vinyl? Morph the Cat was depressing and dull imo.

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WorldbyStorm - August 25, 2012

It’s funny anarchaeologist, it struck me after writing this that Fagen was making almost an explicit critique of Reaganism etc on this album. The somewhat egalitarian promise of the 1960s… “all graphite and glitter, undersea by rail”… and “standing tough under Stars and Stripes” had just become the “standing tough” bit. And in a way that’s where we are today as well.

That’s interesting about Kamakiriad. And I think you’re right about good US FM stuff.

I’ve heard it’s used as a benchmark of music equipment to demonstrate the quality of that. It doesn’t surprise me really. It’s very pristine.

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2. eamonncork - August 25, 2012

Wonderful album, wonderful band. Re jazz and the Dan, imagine my surprise when I got into Jazz and discovered these two tunes.


Quel hommage, as we say in South Sligo.

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WorldbyStorm - August 25, 2012

Jarrett I hadn’t heard but I’m kicking myself over the Horace Silver track which I’ve always loved.

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3. Oisin Rodden - August 25, 2012

One of my favourite albums and I.G.Y is a great satire on the techno-optimism of the fifties.Many people underestimate steely dan,they think it’s just over produced pop music but like all great music it only seems simple,they basically wrote jazz compositions and made them sound like pop songs.The opposite of punk really which marketed itself as being a kind of anti-pop,but in reality it represented the complete commercialization of music,where image is all that matters.

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WorldbyStorm - August 25, 2012

As someone said when I was putting this together it’s odd how Fagen clicked in the early 1980s given that SD were in a sense regarded by some as dinosaurs (although that’s not entirely true, the cynical/bitter edge to their output marked them out from their peers).

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4. D_D - August 25, 2012

A great, great album. Still have it on vinyl. You’ve added a lot to Robery Christgau actually, WBS. And the writing is at least as good.

Steely Dan: has to be one of the top ten bands of all time.

“Only a fool would say that.”

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WorldbyStorm - August 25, 2012

Pretzel Logic is a very strong case for that argument.

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5. Starkadder - August 25, 2012

I’ve been watching the channel Vintage TV over the last few
weeks, and they’ve played the “New Frontier” video several
times. Kudos to them (they also played a few Slits songs
as well).

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WorldbyStorm - August 25, 2012

Sounds good. Ah, the Slits. What a group.

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eamonncork - August 29, 2012

None better.

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6. Walter Carl Becker | Seit über 10.000 Jahren Erfahrung in Versklavung - September 17, 2012

[…] This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… Donald Fagen, The Nightfly (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) […]

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