Music Review: Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen Delivers ‘The Nightfly’

Donald Fagen's The Nightfly

If you’re familiar with the records that ranked Steely Dan among the past decade’s most memorable rock groups, you should have little difficulty conjuring up the sound of Donald Fagen’s solo debut. Like his defunct band’s albums, The Nightfly features Fagen’s cool, liquid vocals, a crisp Gary Katz production, a host of jazz influences, and such consummate session musicians as Jeff Porcaro, Hugh McCracken, and the ubiquitous Brecker brothers. Indeed, if you didn’t know that Fagen had split from Walter Becker, his Steely Dan partner, you could easily conclude from these tracks that the group had a new LP.

But not if you listened closely, in which case you’d note a distinct lyrical shift. With Steely Dan, on the one hand, lyrics often offered little more than an abstruse route to sonic effects; as Fagen told me in a 1974 interview: “Whatever associations the words may spring in the listener’s mind [are fine]. Stravinsky wrote several cantatas where the words were really meaningless; they were for the sound, which is what we basically are after.” On The Nightfly, however, Fagen is after not only accessible, noteworthy lyrics, but a concept album as well. And just in case anybody doesn’t catch the theme, the singer spells it out in a liner note: “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a Northeastern city during the late 50s and early 60s, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.”

As it turns out, though, you don’t need Fagen’s height, weight, or build to relate to the dreams he outlines. Anyone who lived through the Eisenhower era—especially as a teenager—should understand.

While cursed with bland suburban sprawl, not to mention the Cold War and the specter of a nuclear one, the environment that Fagen limns is replete with fantasies that serve as antidotes. In the album’s title cut, for example, he imagines the larger-than-life world of a super-cool radio DJ, a sort of jazz fan’s answer to the Wolfman Jack character in American Graffiti. Containing references to everything from Tuesday Weld to fallout shelters to Dave Brubeck, meanwhile, “New Frontier” finds a lonely teenager applying John Kennedy’s catchphrase to his desire to move away from home, learn a trade, study overseas, and make love for the first time. And then there’s the sardonic “I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year),” the album’s debut single, wherein Fagen echoes America’s post-Sputnik fixation with the promise of science. “Undersea by rail,” he sings. “Ninety minutes from New York to Paris . . . There’ll be spandex jackets, one for everyone.” And in the chorus: “What a wonderful world this’ll be, what a glorious time to be free.”

Though Fagen’s jazzy, understated style is well suited to most of the material here, the music doesn’t score quite as consistently as the lyrics. Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby,” a 1963 smash for Dion and the album’s sole cover version, tediously tries to meld the coexisting but very different attitudes of American Bandstand and the Beat Generation. The supper-club melody of “Maxine,” on the other hand, perfectly fits its subject—a teen couple dreaming of life together after graduation—but it conjures up some of the era’s weakest music.

These are quibbles, though, regarding a provocative, deftly written, superbly played album. Steely Dan fans and products of the post-war Baby Boom are bound to appreciate it. And they probably won’t be the only ones.

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