For many fans of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen's snakeskin voice is the sound of college, the start of intellectual life and newly won independence from parents' clutches. Today, he's the overlord of the territory where jazz, R&B and rock intersect. In this bump-and-grind world, horns come and go, a harmonica wails, a rock guitar weeps, an organ mutters, the beat is strong, and lyrics are about sound textures, wordplay and rich imagery.
"There's a crateful of lead-line pipes/A photo of laughing Navy types/On the island East of the Carolines/Lovely island" —Memorabilia
Sporadically, Donald has released four solo albums apart from Walter Becker. These include The Nightfly (1982), Kamakiriad (1993) and Morph the Cat (2006). Last month he released the long-awaited Sunken Condos (Reprise) and it's his best yet—loaded with sauntering riffs, hypnotic melodies and tough-luck characters.
"Four old hippies drivin' in the rain/I asked for a lift—they said: Get used to the pain/They gonna fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what's to be done/Lord—'bout the weather in my head." —Weather in My Head
Donald's imagination ages well. As with Steely Dan's Hey Nineteen and many of his solo songs here, lyrics center on older guys and their drive to remain sexually relevant with much younger, tireless women. Song themes dwell in a spongy zone between wolf whistles and AARP cards. On his new album, older guys get lucky but then must live with their Faustian bargains—keeping women half their age entertained and satisfied while listening to them yammer about things that are alien and meaningless.
"We went to a party/Everybody stood around/Thinkin': Hey, what's she doin' with a burned out hippie clown/Young dudes were grinnin'/I cant' say it didn't sting/Some punk says: Pops you better hold on to that slinky thing." —Slinky Thing
In this regard, Donald hasn't gone the way of so many other classic rockers—strutting around on stage in tight leather pants, talking about rehab, or wearing baseball caps. His music fully embraces the male aging process, which is what makes him cool. He's observing—watching girls go by and minding his own business, even in bowling alleys:
"Your move to the lane child/Played on my heartstrings/With your long skinny legs child/And your hoop earrings/When the stakes were sky-high/That's when you'd always shine/The ball would ride a moonbeam/Down the inside line." —Miss Marlene
And then there are songs that drop all pretense and get to the heart of the matter—an older guy caught in a young girl's web. In Donald's songs, guys who took their youth for granted become resigned to the passive role they must play in their latter stages. As if awaking on the back of a wild horse, these guys seem caught off-guard and baffled as they hold on—trapped between what they were trained to want and what they no longer can physically handle.
"When we go out dancin'—she's always the star/When she does the Philly Dog—I gotta have CPR/She put on a dress last night made of plastic wrap/It was off the hook—crazy sweet/What everybody's wearin' on Planet D'Rhonda" —Planet D'Rhonda
Like guys who yearn for a Nedicks hot dog or an Orange Julius—fine things that once existed but don't any longer—Donald's characters are rooted in '60s nostalgia but set in today's bitter reality. And throughout the songs, a baritone saxophone barks, trombones and trumpets sigh, the bass bounces, a marimba mocks and the ubiquitous older dude gives his leather jacket a tug and is on his way. It's Donald's world. We just age in it.
JazzWax note: All lyrics above by Donald Fagen (c) 2012.
JazzWax tracks: Donald Fagen's Sunken Condos (Reprise) is available here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Good Stuff from Donald Fagen's new album Sunken Condos...