Fagen is better known as one half of Steely Dan, the band Rolling Stone quite aptly described as “the perfect musical antiheroes for the seventies.” Steely Dan was really just two guys, Fagen and musical compatriot Walter Becker at its core. The pair were known particularly for their sardonic lyrics, smooth jazzy sound and eschewing the confines of the band as a working unit, preferring to use a variety of session musicians instead. As the seventies progressed, their music got more polished and technical while the pair’s studio perfectionism reached ridiculous new heights, culminating in the album Gaucho released in 1980, an album that took a year to make and utilized over 40 different session musicians. With the emergence of the raucous, sometimes sloppy genre of punk, “antiheroes” is certainly an appropriate description. The pair parted ways in 1981, and this album appeared the year after, feeling like something of a natural continuation of the classic Steely Dan sound with a twist. Perhaps a bit more synth-heavy than any of Steely Dan’s albums, it nevertheless retains the hallmarks of their best work: melodious, rich and full, packed with smooth singing, jazzy horns and gentle but stunning guitar work. An apt summation would simply be jazz pop, but it’s so much more than that. It’s smooth without losing its soul, with traditional structures that nevertheless allow (and encourage) a degree of improvisation from the plethora of extremely talented session musicians. The best, my personal favourite and most well-known song from the album I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year) is a stunningly seductive piece of music, from the wonderfully clean horn riff to the bluesy synthesizer to the prodigious backing singers. It’s quite simply a perfect song. Echoes of 50’s Manhattan, downtown, late at night come through in the moody saxophone of Maxine; Walk Between Raindrops is a nice bouncy blues – synthesized, but bluesy nonetheless. Songs on The Nightfly may stick to a well-worn musical formula, but it’s a tried and tested formula that succeeds on every level.
Like I said though, this isn’t just Steely Dan part deux. The main difference lies in the lyrics. Becker and Fagen shared songwriting duties while part of Steely Dan, and their lyrics were consistently razor sharp, packed with satire and sly allusions to place and people. On The Nightfly, the lyrics are particularly nostalgic and autobiographical – back to the whole retro within the retro thing I mentioned earlier – but still as sharp as ever. The title of I.G.Y. refers to the International Geophysical Year of 1957/58, when countries from all over the world participated in Scientific demonstrations and advancements. On the song, Fagen takes the perspective of a bedazzled viewer back then, remarking on the possibility of having “spandex jackets for everyone” and “a just machine to make big decisions/programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.” The chorus of “What a beautiful world this will be/What a glorious time to be free” is both an echo of naïve optimism back then and the melancholy of minds in the 80’s thinking back to that time. Allusions to bomb shelters in New Frontier are juxtaposed with the glam of the city and the excitement of meeting a “big blonde… [who’s] got a touch of Tuesday Weld.” “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck!” sings Fagen, coyly chatting to this elusive female. And on the title track, Fagen assumes the mantle of a late night radio DJ talking to his listeners. “You say there’s a race/of men in the trees/You’re for tough legislation/Thanks for calling/I wait all night for calls like these,” he says with a touch of scorn. The chorus is built on a radio jingle: “An independent station/ WJAZ!” It’s all very witty, with a hefty dose of Steely Dan’s irony but without any bitterness.
The Nightfly stands in my opinion as a masterpiece of clever pop music, the likes of which we don’t see enough of. A throwback to the 50’s that truly stands the test of time, it’s a brilliant combination of jazzy pop and tender melancholy that avoids unwelcome sentiment. Embrace it as such and have the time of your life listening to it.
Words – Adam.