“Yesterday’s man died in the man of today; today’s man dies in the man of tomorrow.” So said Plutarch, a little optimistically, it would seem. In “Bright Future in Sales,” a chugging number from Fountains of Wayne’s much anticipated new Welcome Interstate Managers, we meet the song’s first-person protagonist as he’s propping himself up on a planter in the Port Authority after downing almost 10 scotch-and-sodas at an office party. If he can “get [his] shit together,” he thinks, that titular bright future is his. No sooner is the chorus over than we are back with our boy, months or even years later, as he’s calculating how many whiskey sours he’ll be able to down before a (morning) flight to Baltimore. The chorus, of course, remains the same. Meanwhile, in the more languid musical space of Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go, a once carefree gentleman contemplates his endless cat-and-mouse game with a stalker: “She’s got nothing but time/no use in trying to be clever/Lunch with Gina is forever.”
I’ve been entertaining the idea that Steely Dan and Fountains of Wayne are actually the same band since well before their splendid new albums were released on the exact same day this June. What separates these two is not so much space but a Borgesian, if you will, expanse of time. (Borges is the guy I actually filched that Plutarch quote from.) Both bands are largely identified by their songwriting-team frontmen—Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (who on the new album employ such a consistent track-to-track array of sidemen that you might think they’re a real group again), FOW’s Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger (aided and abetted for a second time here by guitarist Jody Porter and drummer Brian Young, neither of whom should interpret my perspective as a judgment on their “realness,” band-membership-wise)—and isn’t it interesting that, like Rodgers and Hart and Lennon and McCartney, these teams consist of a Jew and a non-Jew? (Yes, I know —but can you deny Lennon’s virtual Jewishness?) Both teams are masters of the sort of subtle songwriting irony many of us used to enjoy before irony got confused with sarcasm and was subsequently pronounced decadent if not dead.
Sure, FOW’s music is pure pop that wears its multiform influences with all the modesty of a prom queen showing off her tiara, while Steely Dan has synthesized and refined all of its influences into a smooth jazz-rock that long ago became sui generis, and the bands operate in seeming indifference to each other —but that’s just my point. Their songs (aside from the Dan ones that explore Fagen’s sci-fi jones, such as the virtual-reality riff “Green Book,” or FOW’s “Yours and Mine” and the ineffably lovely “Valley Winter Song,” which sound like they have something to do with Collingwood’s actual life) are populated, by and large, by the very same guys—only at different ages. White guys who can’t get what they want or what they need, or if they ever do get something along those lines, can’t hold on to it. (One song from Everything is called “Things I Miss the Most”; said things include talk, sex, “somebody to trust.”)
The bands’ new records, particularly if taken in tandem with their immediate predecessors, throw up a good many mirrors. On 1999’s Utopia Parkway, FOW conjured up a post-apocalyptic caravan driving through “The Valley of Malls”; Everything Must Go begins with an invitation to an end-of-the-world shopping spree called “The Last Mall.” The sick, twisted May-December romances of the 2000 Dan album Two Against Nature‘s “Jamie Runaway” are reflected, albeit through a prism of male adolescent cluelessness, in Managers‘ “Stacy’s Mom,” a damnably catchy Cars gloss with a jokey chorus that’s less funny after you imagine what will happen to its hapless teen hero once he’s confessed his older-woman fixation to her daughter. One FOW hero pining for his old love (who, of course, has found success in Hollywood) still resides in “Hackensack.” Fagen grew up in Passaic.
These guys even frequent the same restaurants. On “Halley’s Waitress,” a Managers song that could have fit in nicely on, say, Countdown to Ecstasy had Fagen and Becker preferred Brian Wilson, Les Baxter, and Antonio Carlos Jobim to Thelonious Monk (as is, it bears hallmarks of Adam Schlesinger’s work in the sigh-laden trio Ivy), Collingwood quietly curses an indifferent, albeit seductive, token of our dysfunctional service economy: “I just want some coffee/Is that too much to ask?” Well, yes. While dreading his ongoing lunch with Gina and at the same time perhaps rhapsodizing about where it all began, Fagen grouses, “The waiter never comes/God knows the service could be better.”
A British writer suggested that Utopia Parkway could have been titled Underdogs in Cars. One of the things listed in Steely Dan’s “Things I Miss the Most” is an “Audi TT.” Yesterday’s man never really dies. But if he’s lucky, he trades up to a better model of automobile. Which, in the end—if the end ever really comes—turns out to be not enough.