Review Summary: Music's uncanny valley
Gaucho is the moment Steely Dan flew over the edge. They hadn't been a band in the technical sense of the word for years, with the only two permanent members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen expecting perfection and achieving it by employing as many studio musicians and sound engineers as they could get their hands on. Gaucho features the largest cast of extra musicians, with at least 42 session musicians and 11 engineers used to create these 7 tracks. In spite of this, it is Steely Dan's least complex effort. Gone are the complex harmonies and structures that had become the norm by the time Aja arrived, and replacing it are simple, groove based songs. What results is a musical uncanny valley; the soul and mystery has been drained from their sound, leaving these simplified numbers feeling like nothing more than bones, the kind of bones you expect to accompany the weather channel.
What the album boils down to is the world's most expensive and least inspired backing band accompanying the world's least expressive singer. For all the studio talent present on the album, the band rarely seems to use it. The drummers play simple time throughout, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that - after all, Meg White made her career playing downbeats on a three piece drum kit - there's something bizarre about the rhythm section lacing any sense of nuance that could not be provided by a drum machine. No fewer than seven percussionists appear on the record, but rarely does one hear anything more interesting than an eighth note pattern presented in the most forced, uninspired manner possible. The rest of the musicians play with a similar lack of soul or emotion. The solos are particularly unrewarding, a feature that had previously been one of the strongest aspects of their variety of studio talent. Even Aja, which had similar polish, churned with an internal fire that would occasionally bubble forth to the surface, or the kind of personal expression that made it interesting. Where the record favored polish over passion, there would always be a myriad of subtle nuances layered on top of one another, giving the album a controlled, but expressive feel. But with the complexity removed, all that remains is a simple, soulless performance. Even Fagen's vocals, cool and level, feel hollow and processed.
The songs spread themselves paper-thin. Most tracks exceed five minutes and push six or seven, which is about two or three minutes too long in the case of these simple, grooving numbers. There is not variation or emotion to keep the listener interested, and as the album crawls along, and to accentuate the problem, the songs are incredibly similar, so the songs often never have a chance to be appreciated before they sound dull, trite, and repetitive.
There are occasional moments where their effort pays off, and the intention shines through. Woven through the album are moments where the musicians provide layers of subtly, but these are often pounded out of sight by the insistent, driving, and dull rhythm section. The solo section of "Glamour Profession" has some interesting solo work, even though it goes on much too long, and sounds similar to the kind of melodic proficiency characteristic of the solos on their earlier LPs. Similarly, there are occasional horn shots, such as on the title track and album closer that immediately jump out for their surprising quality. Unfortunately, these only serve to remind the listener just how poorly executed the rest of the album is, and these moments are in most cases suppressed, as if Becker and Fagen wanted their audience to fight for any scrap of quality buried in the album, like these hidden moments of sublimity exist as a middle finger to those who hoped that the drugs had simply consumed any sense of taste or style the band once had.
Rather, it seems as if they finally grew too obsessed with perfection. Over the year that it took to create, they sanded off every flaw until there was nothing with mentioning left. It may be technically perfect, but its inhuman, uninteresting, and disappointing.