Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Steely Dan

  • Can't Buy a Thrill [ABC, 1972] A
  • Countdown to Ecstasy [ABC, 1973] A
  • Pretzel Logic [ABC, 1974] A+
  • Katy Lied [ABC, 1975] A-
  • The Royal Scam [ABC, 1976] B
  • Aja [ABC, 1977] B+
  • Greatest Hits [ABC, 1978] B-
  • Gaucho [MCA, 1980] B-
  • Gold [MCA, 1982] B+
  • Live in America [Giant, 1995] **
  • Two Against Nature [Warner Bros., 2000] A
  • Everything Must Go [Warner Bros., 2003] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Can't Buy a Thrill [ABC, 1972]
How about that--a good album with two hit singles attached. And as you might expect of New York natives who reside in the City of the Angels, both brim with ambivalence: "Do It Again," a catchy modified mambo with homogenized vocals that divert one's attention from its tragic tale of a loser so compulsive he can't get himself hanged, and "Reelin' in the Years," a hate song to a professed genius. Think of the Dan as the first post-boogie band: the beat swings more than it blasts or blisters, the chord changes defy our primitive subconscious expectations, and the lyrics underline their own difficulty--as well as the difficulty of the reality to which they refer--with arbitrary personal allusions, most of which are ruses. A

Countdown to Ecstasy [ABC, 1973]
With the replacement of lead singer David Palmer (who fit in like a cheerleader at a crap game) by composer-pianist-conversationalist Donald Fagen (who looks like he just got dressed to go out for the paper), they achieve a deceptively agreeable studio slickness--perfect licks that crackle and buzz when you listen hard, Grass Roots harmonies applied to words that are usually twisted. Not only does "Bodhisattva" come on like a jazzed-up "Rock Around the Clock"--it shines like China and sparkles like Japan. But somehow I don't think Fagen really intends to hold hands with an Enlightened One, not even out of base curiosity. A

Pretzel Logic [ABC, 1974]
This album sums up their chewy perversity as aptly as its title--all I could ask is a lyric sheet. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" blends into AM radio with an intro appropriated from Horace Silver, while the other side-opener builds a joyous melody of Bird riffs underneath a lyric that invites one and all to "take a piece of Mr. Parker's band." The solos are functional rather than personal or expressive, locked into the workings of the music. And even when Donald Fagen's voice dominates as it comes out of the speakers it tends to sink into the mix in the mind's ear--recollected in tranquility, the vocals seem like the golden mean of pop ensemble singing, stripped of histrionics and displays of technique, almost . . . sincere, modest. Yeah, sure. A+

Katy Lied [ABC, 1975]
Opening with an economic crash and closing with a smacked-out rumination about succor, betrayal, and Vietnam, the first side seems surprisingly sweet and lyrical--mostly by way of the Manhattan nostalgia of "Bad Sneakers" and the faithless passion of "Rose Darling," but also, and most tellingly, in the rumination. This is a matter of rhythm and timbre rather than verbal content--the music lets us know that their cynicism is no more a celebration of cynicism than their smack references are a celebration of smack, lets us know we can break the habit. By comparison the three skillful urban miniatures on side two seem thin and tight, never quite brought around by the more expansive emotions of "Your Gold Teeth II" (throw them out and see how they roll) and "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)" ("Is better than the one I come from"). A-

The Royal Scam [ABC, 1976]
The first question is whether the melodic retreat represents a refusal to indulge the audience or a withering of invention. The second is whether the conscious choice of a jagged, pinched music is a wise one. As if in compensation, the lyrics are less involuted and personal, but in fact their objectivity intensifies Steely Dan's natural nastiness. Whether this narrowing of spiritual possibilities is willed or a symptom of the same chronic insularity that makes Fagen and Becker unwilling to tour, the result sounds a trifle arty and a trifle producty at the same time. Does it matter whether they call San Juan "the city of St. John" in reference to the apocalypse or because it scans nice? B

Aja [ABC, 1977]
Carola suggests that by now they realize they'll never get out of El Lay, so they've elected to sing in their chains like the sea. After all, to a certain kind of reclusive aesthete, well-crafted West Coast studio jazz is as beautiful as anything else, right? Only I'm no recluse. I hated this record for quite a while before I realized that, unlike The Royal Scam, it was stretching me some; I still find the solo licks of Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, et al. too fucking tasty, but at least in this context they mean something. I'm also grateful to find Fagen and Becker's collegiate cynicism in decline; not only is "Deacon Blues" one of their strongest songs ever, it's also one of their warmest. Now if only they'd rhymed "I cried when I wrote this song" with "Sue me if I play it wrong," instead of "Sue me if I play too long." Prefering long to wrong could turn into their fatal flaw. B+

Greatest Hits [ABC, 1978]
This picks what's worth picking off The Royal Scam, adds the negligible "Here in the Western World" to their output, and leaves "FM" on FM, which I consider parsimonious. Essential music in a superfluous configuration. B-

Gaucho [MCA, 1980]
With Walter Becker down to composer credits and very occasional bass, Donald Fagen progresses toward the intellectual cocktail rock he's sought for almost a decade--followed, of course, by a cadre of top-drawer El Lay studio hacks, the only musicians in the world smart enough to play his shit. Even the song with Aretha in it lends credence to rumors that the LP was originally entitled Countdown to Lethargy. After half a dozen hearings, the most arcane harmonies and unlikely hooks sound comforting, like one of those electromassagers that relax the muscles with a low-voltage shock. Craftsmen this obsessive don't want to rule the world--they just want to make sure it doesn't get them. B-

Gold [MCA, 1982]
Pure contract fulfillment--Donald Fagen's solo debut is due on Warners in a few months--and nowhere near as consistent as the useless 1978 Greatest Hits, with only Gaucho to show in between. Yet as product this one makes a certain sense, rescuing "Hey Nineteen" and "FM" and in a way "Deacon Blue" and even "Green Earrings," livelier in this livelier company than on The Royal Scam. Though not as lively as "Chain Lightning" or "King of the World," from back when they masqueraded as a rock and roll band rather than a "sophisticated pop/jazz group." B+

Live in America [Giant, 1995]
a piece of Mr. Fagen's band ("Bodhisattva," "Peg") **

Two Against Nature [Warner Bros., 2000]
See: Doing It Again. A

Everything Must Go [Warner Bros., 2003]
dying in stereo, nothing left to say ("Slang of Angels," "Things I Miss the Most") *

See Also