AOM Logo April 2000

Steely Dan: Two Against Nature

Giant Records

Playing Time: 51:32

D. Malcolm Fairbrother

Cover Image

Dupree, crashing on his aunt's couch between his "nowhere gigs", puts the moves on cousin Janine who is driving him crazy with her "little tops and tight capris" - she crushes him with a scathing wit and penetrating wisdom that he can barely grasp. The arsonist's jail bait daughter inspires heated fantasies of taking her across the state line for purposes only hinted at, but nonetheless vaguely sinister. Spectres of almost substantive characters, who may or may not be up to no good and who can almost be understood, slide in and about the deliciously cool fusion of rock music and jazz, a crisp yet insinuating union - it can all add up to only one thing: Steely Dan is back!

Indeed, Steely Dan is back with a stunning new work, Two Against Nature; yet, in many ways it is as if Gaucho, the Dan's 1980 release, their last until now, was really a double album; it just took us twenty years to get around to popping Record Two onto the turntable. Make no mistake here; the music on Two Against Nature is by no means dated. Donald Fagen, keyboardist, vocalist, and co-writer, and Walter Becker, guitarist, co-writer and co-producer, along with their ensemble of talented musicians, may be guilty of being somewhat out of vogue. They are seldom dated and always interesting.

The opus begins with Gaslighting Annie, a sleek and slinky white R&B groove coiled coolly around the backbone of a resonant drumbeat; Fagen reminisces about a long-ago summer by the sea while the musicians lay down first rate tracks. The song contains a line that aptly sums up the substance of the totality of the CD: "a mix of elegance and function"; yet Becker and Fagen never eliminate the fun from the function of their elegant instrumentation. What A Shame About Me drips in irony as a self-pitying loser recounts a chance meeting between himself and an old flame. His failures are rendered more colossal by her artistic successes, his potential made all the more pathetic by his series of mewling excuses, nothing more than effete navel-gazing, really, to the point where he misses a chance at redemption, or at least a for-old-times-sake night of passion, choosing instead to drown in his own whine.

Instrumentally, the cast of supporting characters changes moderately from song to song, but the Dan never miss a beat, each song retaining the signature fluidity and precision that punctuate this and other Becker and Fagen compositions. The duo employs more drummers than Spinal Tap, though the listener is hard pressed to hear much of a difference in style as each one is an equally effective component of the musical aggregate. The hired hands blend seamlessly with Becker's sly guitar licks and Fagen's intelligent horn arrangements; Fagen stitches it all together with delicate threads of keyboard wizardry. The lyrics are erudite, yet somehow suggestively sleazy, now ironic, now obscure, now interspersed with slang that falls just short of not quite making sense; the listener is kept off balance, but is never thinks one gets it, but it would be far less than cool to admit otherwise.

Several of the songs are absolute stunners. Cousin Dupree rocks as it pays homage to the dirty old man (remember the anti-hero of Gaucho's Hey Nineteen who bridged the distance between himself and his innocent, much younger conquests with techno-babble and killer grass?), his lust kept at arm's length by his own stupidity when faced with the fresher, more intuitive wit of his young cousin. In a delightful turn of events, the kid crushes the cad, but he just does not get it. West Of Hollywood, the final cut on the CD, rocks out as much as any number in this collection; the song is a litany of vague losses, a bitter-sweet testament of unfulfilled potential, of dreams not quite realized. The wave of life became deflected by an unspecified and unexpected turning point and carried the anti-hero (anti-hero it must be, as there is rarely any noble quality to be found in a Steely Dan character) to an unexpected shore of "way deep into nothing special".

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
A couple of the tracks conspire to keep us away from the core of their meaning. Indeed, the title track may be about a voodoo curse, or it may be about cleaning one's apartment and finding a spider's nest; the listener is not certain, but it doesn't matter. Thus, it is with Steely Dan, a group named after an erudite but nonetheless sleazy dildo - an instrument of cold pleasure, indeed! There is more than enough connection within the boundaries of Two Against Nature to warm the slightly mystified heart of Dan fans everywhere. The opus is so cool that you will gain points with the musical literati merely by having the jewel case on display on a shelf near the player; or, you can keep the CD in a bowl of salad ingredients where it will keep them as fresh, crisp, and yes, cool as the music it contains.
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