Review Summary: More than any other Steely Dan album, Aja proves just how incredible the fusion of jazz and rock can be when it’s in the right hands.Chapter VI: The Peak of Perfectionism
Throughout the entire Steely Dan discography review, there’s one term I’ve deliberately avoided until now: “yacht rock”. It’s a subgenre that was retroactively created in the mid-2000s to define a lot of the soft rock bands of the 70s and early 80s, often recognized for its association with smooth jazz and R&B influences. You’ll often find bands such as The Doobie Brothers and Toto tagged with this label these days, and Steely Dan - particularly from Aja
onward - is no exception. The reason I haven’t brought it up until now is because it’s often used as a pejorative term; in fact, it goes a long way in describing why Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were so hated by younger listeners from the 2000s onward. While it’s just seen as a footnote in music history today, Steely Dan’s win at the 2001 Grammys for Two Against Nature
was a serious point of controversy back when it happened. After all, people were clamoring for a more modern artist like Radiohead or Eminem to win! To many, it was a sign that the boomers had won and gotten their “revenge”.
The reason I bring all of this up is because Aja
, for all of its accolades, is often considered a turning point in Steely Dan’s career. It’s seen as the moment the duo finally took the final plunge into their jazz influences to create a full-fledged pop-jazz fusion hybrid, especially when examining songs such as the complex title track and the smooth jazz stylings of “Home at Last”. But if you read the contemporary reviews that were released at the time, you’ll come across descriptors such as “over-polished”, “lacking in edge”, “clinical”, and so forth (I’m looking at you, Robert Christgau). The fact that Aja
was the immediate successor to The Royal Scam
probably didn’t help either, seeing as the latter was their most guitar-oriented album to date. But I don’t think it should be any surprise at all that this record was the eventual outcome of Becker and Fagen’s relentless tinkering with studio technology and guest musician rotations. If anything, it was inevitable.
Say what you want about the yacht rock descriptor, but Steely Dan really took that subgenre’s elements as far as they could go. So let’s put context aside for a while and zoom in on the music at hand. More than any other record by the group, I would consider Aja
their “character study” album. Each tune focuses on a specific character - some in third person, some in first person - and assigns them their own interesting scenario or mood. Some of these are left open-ended, such as the person drinking the titular “black cow” in the song of the same name (which is another term for a root beer float) or the vague Chinese imagery surrounding the woman described in the title track. Others, however, are quite painfully clear; the most notable of these would be “Deacon Blues”, which focuses on a dreamer whose imagination always surpasses the reality he lives in. The character simply lives in a perpetual state of longing, which is conveyed brilliantly by the dreamlike R&B-meets-jazz approach of the music.
Speaking of the music, it’s easily the most impeccably written and performed work of the band’s discography up to that point. The years of Becker and Fagen becoming a studio-only act really found their peak here, as the duo had gotten incredibly proficient at knowing exactly what musicians to use for each track. Many familiar faces return for this project, such as the legendary bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard Purdie (check out his purdie shuffle on “Home at Last”) as well as the usual roster of amazing guitarists. But there are some really surprising additions to the lineup this time around; the most striking of these would probably be Weather Report saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s performance on the title track, once again signifying the group continuing their transition into the jazz realm. Steve Gadd also makes his first appearance on a Dan album with the same song, closing out the tune with a drum solo that’s now considered legendary. As with previous records, however, the magic is in how every musician is used. Chuck Rainey, for instance, has a much different style of bass playing to that of Walter Becker’s; this leads to an amazing contrast between the approaches of the upbeat and funky “Peg” and the smooth, slow rhythms of “Deacon Blues”.
also happens to have the shortest tracklist of any Dan album up to this point (and only rivaled by its followup Gaucho
), which means the duo didn’t have any time to waste on filler tracks that might have been used in previous records to pad out the runtime (“Pearl of the Quarter” and “With a Gun” immediately come to mind). Seven tracks, all killer no filler. Every song is unique enough to stand out, while also being consistent enough stylistically to not stand out like a sore thumb. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the group’s jazziest album - either Gaucho
or Two Against Nature
would take that honor - but that actually works in its favor. Songs like “Peg” and “Josie” serve as perfect ways to break up the more dense and progressive sections of the record, not to mention being instantly memorable and impossibly catchy. What makes Aja
so amazing lies in the fact that it balances so many different moods, themes, and styles as flawlessly as it does. When you step back and examine the album as a whole, it’s pretty astounding how well Becker and Fagen managed to juggle artistic credibility and commercial appeal.
So, getting back to where we started, Aja
serves as a perfect example of why Steely Dan shouldn’t just be passed off as nothing but “boomer music”. That pejorative label happens to be the very reason I passed on the band for several years, but this record proves just how incredible the fusion of jazz and rock can be when it’s in the right hands. This is the culmination of all the studio experiments and painstaking perfectionism that Steely Dan worked with, and the high standards they set paid off beautifully. Becker and Fagen accepted nothing less than the best, and with Aja
they reaped the incredible rewards that came with such a mindset.