Review Summary: Aja is very close to being the perfect pop album, being both enjoyable for people seeking a lighthearted tune and music enthusiasts in search of unpredictable and amazingly executed compositions.
Upon first listen, it may be difficult to actually pin down why Aja is considered to rank among the best albums that the legendary decade of the 1970's has produced. Being best described as "easy listening" music, not many things immediately stand out. All the different sounds, styles and influences are being blended into one simple, easy digestible package which sets the mood perfectly for a moment of peace and content. This is an album of zero extremes: you won't find fast riffage, long-winded guitar solos, frenetic drumming or a bombastic wall-of-sound. Lyrically, deeply personal thoughts or screams against the establishment are also absent. Again, why is it then that Aja is considered to be an absolute 70's classic?
The answer is: just because of the very things it omits. Seemingly living on its own isolated musical island, separated from the continents of glam rock, punk and proto-metal, Aja resulted from Steely Dan's deep love for all things jazz. Although early albums already hinted at that love, they went to the next level on this record. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (the only constant members of the group) recruited a whole army of guest musicians, all masters in their respectable fields, to make sure the combination of those jazz influences with their already established brand of soft-rock would be nothing less than magical.
Although they played live shows in their early days, in essence, Steely Dan were a studio band. The studio was their natural habitat, their playing ground. Both Becker and Fagen were classically trained musicians, who put equal parts knowledge as heart and soul in their music. Practically nothing you hear on the record results from improvisation, and every guest musician that was given a spot, was selected after a long series of auditions. If you look at the production notes, you'll also rarely see the same two musicians appearing on different tracks. That knowledge and technicality may come off as very sterile and it may seem as if the album would be a very boring accomplishment as a result, but in fact it's what gives Aja such a timeless character.
What further amplifies this, is that the replayability of this record is unbelievably high. Smooth guitar licks are rapidly and seamlessly followed up with extremely funky bass lines, organs straight out of that crimi TV series, which was popular in the day, and piano parts which complement perfectly with that whiskey you just ordered in that shady bar downtown. The lyrics are splendidly sardonic, but also paint a canvas of vivid imagery in your head. What at first listen seems to be a fairly simple but enjoyable listen, evolves with each consecutive listen into a real treasure hunt for small delights scattered across these seven tracks: the perfectly harmonized vocals on the opening track "Black Cow", for example, and the buildup to the brilliant chorus in "Peg", followed by the legendary guitar solo of Jay Graydon. Or the tempo changes, xylophone melodies and, ultimately, the utterly beautiful saxophone moment, provided by none other than Wayne Shorter!
In the hands of lesser gods, this would all have probably turned out very disjointed and gimmicky, but Becker and Fagen's studio wizardry has made Aja a very cohesive album, in which the whole is still better than the sum of its uniformly quasi-perfect parts. It also should come as no surprise that the production and sound quality of the songs here is downright excellent. Although the description of jazz-meets-pop would make many a purist jump out of their skin of rage, this is not at all a case of the style being dumbed down for the masses. In fact, over the years, the record has gotten its fair share of critical acclaim, even from the jazz world and rightly so. Aja is very close to being the perfect pop album, being both enjoyable for people seeking a lighthearted tune and music enthusiasts in search of unpredictable and amazingly executed compositions. But most of all, it's a testament to all the great studio bands, who spend years trying to achieve perfection through countless hours of hard labor and gallons of blood, sweat and tears, and proves that such a process actually can result in a true masterpiece.