Review Summary: A bizarrely compelling death rattle.Chapter VII: The Price of Being Perfect
If I had to point to the single biggest double-edged sword that blessed and cursed Steely Dan in equal measure, it would definitely be perfectionism. After all, there is such a concept as “too perfect” in the ears of many, whether it be from overly glossy production or from musicians who sound just a bit too
precise (in other words, stiff or robotic). As someone who mostly grew up as a progressive rock fanatic, I will admit that the concept of perfectionism was initially quite a tantalizing one. It was even to the point that I actively refused to listen to live records for the longest time, so as to avoid hearing the inconsistencies and blemishes in people’s performances. But a little spontaneity can be a good thing, even in more complex or sophisticated genres; if an artist’s work sounds more rehearsed than usual, listeners might start to pick up on a layer of artifice that ends up turning them off.
But for Steely Dan, perfectionism ended up becoming their defining trait. And let’s be real here: there were definitely signs of this that started to appear over time. Hell, the first indicator appeared all the way back on their 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill
, which the duo considered a “rush job” despite taking six months to write and record. And by the time we got to Aja
they were - according to the album’s 1999 documentary on Classic Albums
- not only playing musical chairs, but “musical bands”. Every song would have a completely new lineup of musicians in order to fulfill the hyper-specific vision they had, and the personnel were often among the best of the best in the industry. It really makes me wonder if a group with Steely Dan’s artistic philosophy and approach could even exist today; in retrospect, it’s astounding that they even had such free reign to do this kind of thing. Of course, however, it definitely couldn’t last. And the same stylistic traits that gave them a string of hits in the 70s would eventually destroy them at the dawn of the 80s.
Now, am I dramatizing this more than I should? Probably. But the retrospective opinion on Gaucho
is quite different than how people perceived it at the time. Nowadays it’s often cited as the last great Steely Dan record (which is highly debatable), but reviews at the time - while decent enough - were a serious step down from the praise that showered Aja
just a few years prior. And I’m sure the stories going on behind the scenes weren’t helping the duo’s case, especially Becker’s drug addiction and Fagen’s ruthless attitude in the studio. I think most of us have heard the stories of the latter at this point: the title track’s drum part being composed of 46 different takes that were spliced together, only 40 seconds of Mark Knopfler’s literal hours
of guitar solo takes being used for “Time Out of Mind”, and the list goes on. So it’s really not surprising at all that, while working with Steely Dan was a gig that could land you some serious accolades, the actual recording process must have been fucking miserable.
The music itself is actually a bit of a departure from Aja
, relying much more on atmosphere and minimalism than any of the duo’s previous records. The arrangements are still complex, mind you, and songs such as the title track and “Babylon Sisters” go through some pretty crazy rhythm and chord changes (respectively) that’ll make any old-school jazz fusion fan feel right at home. But I’d argue that Gaucho
was the moment that Steely Dan’s yacht rock transformation was truly complete, as the polish and gloss of Aja
was pushed even further. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve actually heard the record, but it’s like the aural equivalent of what you might consider dead-eyed or vacant, which is likely the reason that so many people talk about the “uncanny valley” when describing the music. This is perhaps best represented in “Glamour Profession”, a slightly uptempo number that has ominous horns perpetually ebbing and flowing in the background as Steve Gadd’s repetitive drum beat keeps hammering away for the entire seven minutes of the track.
That’s not to say the record sounds completely lifeless. In fact, the aforementioned title track is one of the most beautiful and well-arranged tunes I’ve ever heard from the duo, despite the incredibly bigoted and harsh lyrics that come with it. But considering this is Steely Dan, I’m pretty sure that contrast is exactly
what they were going for. In fact, that brings up an important point about Gaucho
: a lot of the band’s trademark cynicism was back in full swing again. The thing that many people don’t often talk about is that Aja
was strangely sincere and earnest for a band who’d built themselves on being transgressive and cynical. But beneath the polished veneer of Gaucho
’s music, lyrics about drug dealings, hookers, and straight-up assholes emerge from the woodwork. As with many of the duo’s previous records, this stuff is always welcome and adds to the twisted charm of their work; this is especially evident in “Time Out of Mind” and “Glamour Profession”, which are completely transparent about their drug-based themes but also supported by the slickest-sounding jazz-rock imaginable.
Unfortunately, the one thing that really drags Gaucho
down is its lack of variety compared to the last few records, especially Aja
. Whereas the latter had a diverse range of styles - the funk and R&B of “Black Cow”, the progressive jazz fusion of the title track, the upbeat pop of “Peg”, etc. - the former rides on its midtempo grooves and simplistic melodies just a little too often. Once in a while they’ll do something interesting over these beats, such as the fantastic horn interplay in the bridge of “My Rival”, but it doesn’t stop the album as a whole from being just a bit too homogeneous. It really could have benefitted from a few more “Babylon Sisters”-esque shuffles or more of the harmonic complexity of the title track.
Then again, considering how painful it was for the band to record that same title track, I think we should be grateful that we even got such a solid album in the first place. Gaucho
is incredibly flawed, but that’s ironically the strange allure of the record as well. There’s something almost sickeningly voyeuristic about watching this duo fall apart and hearing the results of the fallout, but the trainwreck(ord) is just too compelling to ignore. Additionally, the benefit of hindsight really casts a melancholic shadow over Gaucho
that no other Steely Dan record can boast. The emperor had no more clothes, and all that was left in his place was the death rattle of a band who’d taken their perfectionism and polish just a bit too far. Poetic irony indeed.