You, me, the music, and me.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

STEELY DAN Greatest Hits

MCA 2-6008 (1978)

All night long
We would sing that stupid song
And every word we sang
I knew was true

- from Doctor Wu (Walter Becker/Donald Fagen)

I can't remember how or when this album made it into my collection; it must have been before I bought Citizen Steely Dan, which pulls together all of this band's studio albums up to 1980 and is probably the one indispensible CD box set I own. I do remember hearing Steely Dan on the radio while I was growing up, often sandwiched between other smooth-sounding L.A. rock groups like the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, and Fleetwood Mac. I didn't pay much attention to the lyrics until I was older, which was probably a good thing, considering the kind of subject matter that made it into their songs. To this day, you can still hear Donald Fagen sing about chance homosexual hookups ("Rikki Don't Lose That Number"), drug deals gone sour ("Do It Again"), or wanting "to tour the Southland in a travelling minstrel show" ("Pretzel Logic") on most "classic rock" stations, and hardly anyone seems to notice or fully register what it is he's saying. That's Steely Dan's gift; the ability to take a dark, seedy tale and dress it up in hip keyboards and funky guitars and hang a melody on it that is so insidiously catchy that you don't fully realize what it is you're humming along to at work or in your car until it's too late.

The funny thing is that I probably would never have become hooked on the band's music (which sometimes too closely resembles "lite" jazz) if it weren't for their lyrics (and I'm not much of a lyric man, preferring a catchy hook or rousing leitmotif to yet another tale of love gone wrong (or right)). Let me rephrase that; it's the combination of lyrics and music that grabs me; the way that the music draws you into the words which in turn graft greater depth back onto the music. The songs always seemed to come from a moral place; the band would observe the nastiness and chaos that took place in the world with a compassionate eye, yet they managed to never sound judgmental or condemning (unlike, say, the Eagles).

Most of the songs deal with the disillusionment with life that comes with getting older, which is probably why Steely Dan's music has aged pretty well and actually seems to get better and more relevant with each passing year. The overall feeling is that becoming wiser doesn't necessarily make you happier, in fact it often has the opposite effect. Yet the music refuses to give in to the cynicism of the words, producing upbeat tunes like "Reeling in the Years", "Kid Charlemagne", and "My Old School", in which the speaker eventually finds some sort of satisfaction or peace with himself and/or the world around him, while realizing that such an achievement rarely comes without a price.

Steely Dan was all about the yin and the yang, the good and the bad, the happy and the utterly despondent. If you can find this album, pick it up, but I strongly recommend getting the box set for the full story. And don't neglect those lyric sheets.


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