Review Summary: Like the International Space Station above us, The Nightfly continues to orbit as an unknown entity worthy of more praise than one might have you believe.
If you’ve ever sat down and listened to more than one Steely Dan record, you’ll probably have noticed their inescapable hurtling toward studio sterility. From 1972’s jam-band-esque Can’t Buy a Thrill
to 1977’s high-art, jazz-based masterpiece Aja
, they had lost members, stopped touring and unashamedly, Becker and Fagen (with the help of producer Gary Katz) had dragged their sonority into territory so sleek and crisp, it was a wonder any of the instruments were performed live. Whether for good or bad, the captious duo would relentlessly use the studio as their most powerful weapon – any sound required is possible if you have the time. Well, that was
the case, until the ‘band’ collapsed in on themselves and hit a wall. Hard. That wall was Gaucho
Both 1979 and ‘80 came down on the pair like a ton of bricks. First, their label, ABC, was bought out by MCA, who thwarted their previous plans to move to Warner Bros., leaving them in a bitter legal battle over ownership. Next, Becker, in his darkest phases of drug addiction, was struck down and seriously injured by a taxi in NYC, and soon after his then-girlfriend was found dead in his apartment of a drug overdose, landing the bassist in a costing lawsuit. Fagen too was not without woe; with all hell breaking loose around him, with his increasingly paranoid perfectionism in the studio, he dug himself a massive hole at the same time as leaving himself with a mountain to climb. In the end, the accidental deletion of an entire track, uncooperative session musicians and unrelenting personal issues amongst the two led to what can only be described as on of the most offensively clinical, toothless records ever put to vinyl. Sure, it had its moments, and it set a new standard for record cleanliness, but it had no soul. It had no edge. All in all, it was almost a concept album centred on seedy people of the night; pretentious hipsters with faux-Chinese pastimes, who listen to late-nite musak and dabble in Class-A drugs for the hell of it. The irony is that Steely Dan hadn’t realised that they’d accidentally made an album for
those people, not about them.
Perhaps then, one of the more fascinating feature of Fagen’s 1982 solo debut The Nightfly
is that it sounds more like Gaucho
does, but in all its super-cleanliness and focussed virtuosity, it managed to set itself apart for two crucial reasons. One is that Fagen had no distractions. The studio was his to really open his mind, with no outside input, and it never got self-indulgent either; while Becker was away getting clean in Hawaii and generally taking life a bit easier, Katz and Nichols headed back into the studio again for this outing – this record wasn’t going to be a far leap from the sound of late Steely Dan. The other reason is that the refined subject matter, the subtle nuances and prosody Fagen uses are so charismatic and charming from start to finish that one can’t help but pull a wry smile or two.
For the duration of the record, relentless chimes of the Cold War, the Space Race and general 1950s blind-optimism weave in and out, some highly subtle, some not so, delving head-first into the imaginative nature of the era and capturing it absolutely spot-on. Powerfully and purposefully penned with that same naïvety that swept the house of every little boy, every bored housewife and every dead-end businessman in the US, the album creates a mirage of fantastical imagery and ludicrous impossibilities that then seemed oh-so-real. Not to say that any track has so much as a hint of remorse, regret or shame, one of the most appealing factors of the LP; it plays out like those dreams are all still in the pipeline, anything and everything is still possible, and… wait, what do you mean there’s no undersea tunnel from New York to Paris?!
On the other hand, the ‘Dan gang were never ones to stray too far from the mordant sides of society, and no song highlights the subtlety with which Fagen handles these matters better than the seemingly-one-dimensional The Goodbye Look
; on first skim it’s merely a simple song about being cast aside by a callous lover on an exotic Caribbean beach. Listen again. You see? It’s about a careless, ill-informed American holidaymaker risking his life by outstaying his welcome on an island that has just undergone an overnight revolution. Cuba, anyone? It seems a running theme of The Nightfly
is that within every context there are malicious subcontexts, and buried within every line are sunken, sadistic hidden meanings. New Frontier
encapsulates the joy of spending time with models whilst listening to Dave Brubeck, but every once in a while also reminds us that this is all supposed to be occurring inside a nuclear bunker. Walk Between the Raindrops
has a melody so bright and radiant and a swing-band rhythm that could make Sinatra swoon, but is merely the musings of a man fondly remembering time spent with his recently-departed lover, rushing through a downpour and people-watching on a glorious Florida beach, only to cave in during the final verse and wistfully wish those moments would return.
The title track, however, is something quite special. Ironically, it has no meaning outside the existential plight of a radio DJ broadcasting through the early hours from some deserted corner of Mississippi, but its impact is so striking and sharp; amongst transcripts of listener calls discussing mysterious men residing in foliage are harsh, staccato keyboard stabs that punctuate the piece in an almost Talking Heads-esque manner, and quite honestly, it rocks. Reciting the same hitches and technicalities that he probably heard as a child, Fagen casually opens with ”I’m Lester the Nightfly, hello Baton Rouge; would you turn your radio down? Respect the seven-second delay we use.”
. Already, within the first few moments, the song bursts into bloom as a remarkably nuanced reliving of an almost-expired tradition, complete with the limitations and liberations it brought for so many years.
Essentially, The Nightfly
as an LP lugubriously cruises along from A to Z with expert craftsmanship and complexity whilst never losing its innate intricacy and unexpected accessibility. Even to we who are not accustomed to the era mentioned are sucked in by its charm, its melancholy pseudo-credulousness. A cult classic, maybe; but this doesn’t award it with due credit. As the Wall Street Journal so efficiently dubbed it, the album truly is ”one of pop music’s sneakiest masterpieces”
, and much like the protagonists of the stories and spinners of these sceptical yarns, the album itself remains sheltered firmly underground.