Perhaps Donald Fagen is an unlikely companion for a tour of the post-recession state of the culture. The jazz fan whose favorite music has long faded from cultural prominence has already faced down the past, imagined a futile future, and mined his own mortality. He is the young cynic who revered the now-unfashionable beats and Burroughs; the chronicler (with Steely Dan partner Walter Becker) of the burned-out 1970s in all that decade’s shag rug and fern bar glory; the creator of a pop masterpiece in suburban nostalgic mode (1982’s The Nightfly); the fantasist of a hipster future and mordant present (1993’s Kamakiriad and 2006’s Morph the Cat)—what is left to say? His engagement with the pop present, always shaky in the best of times (the already wistful “Hey Nineteen,” 1980) found new expression last year with Sunken Condos.
Underwater mortgages and drowned daydreams are not necessarily the ingredients for a pop holiday, but Fagen’s irrepressibly snappy combination of rhythm-and-blues married to jazz chords buoys the spirits of listeners struggling to gauge just how serious a turn this is from a man whose cool lyric stances and just-verging-on-snide vocal deliveries are legendary. In any case, most of the songs are about characters’ states of mind—ranging from gleeful to mildly despondent—while the world goes to hell. “Slinky Thing” and “The New Breed” find our antihero acknowledging that the “Nineteen” of “Hey” may in fact be better off with someone her own age. The rush of freedom essayed in “I’m Not the Same Without You” typically falls short on the sincerity meter. The song’s giddy high is something like that of the self-help section in a soon-to-shutter bookstore. The cheerleading sounds good, but maybe the purchase can wait after all because the mourning and self-loathing are right around the corner. “I can hold my breath for a really long time now,” the character says in this exhilarating non-existent e-mail to the ex. “I can hold my own/I’m not the same without you.”
The condos may actually sink due to climate change, of course, but Fagen’s narrator, suffering under our new and unpleasant version of the sun, still has failed romance on his mind. “They can fix the weather in the world, just like Mr. Gore said,” Fagen sings. “But tell me what’s to be done ‘bout the weather in my head.” And in the end, Fagen knows that it is the “ocean of misery floodin’ my heart” that we really want to hear about. We’ve got the net and cable and “QUAKE-TV” to depress us about the what’s going on outside. Sometimes a night of bowling—that is, with an ace like fondly remembered “Miss Marlene”— is the tonic, except that Fagen’s scenario reminds us that we metaphorically bowl alone now as often as not. “Good Stuff” is a mini gangster picture where hooch heists are punctuated with deadly gunfire (“There’s a special satisfaction/When a job comes off all right”) and we recognize the old nihilist of the drug burn epic “Kid Charlemagne” still kicking.
Fagen is acutely aware of his elder status and of the reduced expectations in the culture around him, but as ever, his polished music makes the bad medicine go down. His secret weapon on this project is trumpeter Michael Leonhart, a member of the Steely Dan touring band whose production, arranging, and surprising electric guitar playing help Fagen maintain his sophisticated pop sound. We may be on our way down, but Fagen’s particular brand of jazziness provides a needed life buoy, however transient.