Relaxed of groove but certainly sophisticated, this is Fagen on form.
Martin Aston 2012
New York’s Steely Dan were one of the most swinging, groovy and erudite rock bands of the 1970s. When founder members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker split, frontman Fagen was the more visible flag-bearer of the two – except that he rather took his time over it.
Fagen’s first three solo albums, The Nightfly, Kamakiriad and Morph the Cat, spanned a period of 24 years, but Sunken Condos arrives only six years after Morph. Given he’s been touring with Steely Dan in the interim, this is tantamount to the days when bands like The Beatles seemed to release an album every six months.
Perhaps this indicates some mass upheaval in Fagen’s life. Indeed, Fagen calls the preceding trio the "Nightfly Trilogy", and Sunken Condos, claims its press release, “begins a new chapter in the creative evolution of this innovative artist”. Nine songs and 44 minutes later, it’s a mystery of Agatha Christie proportions exactly where this evolution starts.
Simultaneously taut and lush jazz-funk-pop: check. A mix of upbeat and louche tempos: check. A world where gorgeous guitars eschew riffs for licks, shades of brass slide nonchalantly in and out of view and shimmering peals of electric piano underline the art-deco basement vibe, where the nightfly watches the world through a cocktail glass darkly: check.
There is one slight change of scene, but that’s down to it being a cover of Isaac Hayes’ Out of the Ghetto. It’s apparently an “Ashkenazi recasting” (referring to Fagen’s Jewish roots) of the original, though the lighter touch is deferential to Hayes’ own arrangement.
To criticise the man for making the same record again is like criticising Van Gogh for his repeated self-portraits; God is in the detail, the inch-perfect shifts in tone and placement. And to imbibe this level of sophistication after so much lo-fi bedroom chillwave is like a slowly unfolding banquet compared to binging on bar snacks.
And maybe, just maybe, the overall grooves are more relaxed because Fagen hasn’t spent a lifetime refining them. But why an artist of his class isn’t curious or restless enough to step outside his comfort zone might take a detective of Hercule Poirot’s own class to work out.