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Donald Fagen’s new album, the Steely Dan co-founder’s first since 1993’s Kamakiriad, is a funky suite devoted to post–9-11 conundrums. His song cycle is framed by “Morph the Cat,” a lazy-gaited pop-jazz groove that serves as the collection’s title, opening tune, and ending reprise, and which Fagen—who in liner notes writes a brief synopsis of each track—describes as follows: “A vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of ecstasy.”
This act of the imagination is a fanciful yet brutal inversion of intentionally caused smoke that was the result of enormously less innocent sources. In “Morph the Cat” Fagen’s New Yorkers experience not fear but profound entertainment. The environmental joy is there whether these New Yorkers look at the sky or encounter the phenom in their “wiggy pads” as the cat-thing “oozes down the heating duct” or “swims like seaweed down the hall.” And “Chinese cashiers,” “grand old gals at evening mass,” “young racketeers,” “teenage models/Laughing on the grass”—they all react this way.
Within the frame of this song and its conceit—as whimsical in the song as it is harrowing in its actual political basis—Fagen offers more grand and low-down tunes; the music is as free as birds and as constrained by reality as the Times. A guy late to LaGuardia falls for a security inspector, her sweeping wand and crooked smile in “Security Joan”; “Search me now,” he begs. The woman in “The Night Belongs to Mona” has become a Manhattan nocturnalist, although since “the fire downtown” she doesn’t go out clubbing but rather optionlessly stays home, dresses in black, plays her CDs, and dances alone; sometimes she telephones Fagen’s narrator to discuss all this “grim and funny stuff.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Funn” want their relationship to protect them from the cable-TV-fueled daily realm of “poison skies and severed heads.” In “Mary Shut the Garden Door”—”Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government,” Fagen’s synopsis runs—the perception of public tragedy boils down to exhausted, droll reporting: “They won/Storms raged/Things changed/Forever.”
All of this would be of impressive but still limited achievement if Fagen’s music weren’t alluring. And the music—melodic angles dissolving into dulcet straight lines and circles, Mensa harmonies skillfully made super-vivid by ’90s Steely Dan sessioneers, lapidary lead vocals gliding in deep-skull cashmere, often decorated with tiny yet plush backup chorales—refines further Fagen’s singular pop-r&b-jazz. It remains the painstaking music of a man who once pointed out to an interviewer that since computer keyboards overtook the instrumentation of most pop productions, records have gone out of tune, and that generations of listeners now take the fatally unforgiving temperament of those tunings as pitch-perfect. So is Fagen’s music good? Unfashionable, yet wicked good. And as David Geffen once famously said, there’s never a bad time to be good.
Morph the Cat has smashing tunes about death as expressed by W.C. Fields (“Brite Nitegown”), Ray Charles’s sexual genius (“What I Do”), and an eccentric old band (“H Gang”); each occupies Fagen’s sequence well but less programmatically. The music wields the musical-literary focus of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo debut, where he held court like J. D. Salinger as a jazz hipster. And it also offers the sonic kicks, if appropriately cooled off, of Kamakiriad.
But Fagen’s triumph of rendering post–9-11 New York most recalls how perfectly Steely Dan caught LA on 1980’s ‘Gaucho.’ Nothing in pop music outdoes Patti Austin’s and Valerie Simpson’s background voices there, floating through and dramatizing the maybe horrible ease and questionable unblemishedness of the money and sex and drugs and surgery of West Coast high life. Similarly, Fagen’s narrator urging that security chick to “Search me now” cinches, effortlessly, the current world of ongoing monumental worry and this afternoon’s missed flight.