When you put Donald Fagen's first solo venture, 1981's The Nightfly, on the hi-fi, the first sound before the double-fisted chord extensions, penny-loafer backbeats, and buttery aural soothing is that of a needle touching down on the vinyl with a particular whoosh, like that of a passing jet engine. The song that follows the impeccably ultramodern hit "I.G.Y." offers a smooth-sailing trip on machines of graphite and glitter that famously takes ninety minutes from New York to Paris. With it, Fagen's career apart from Steely Dan leaves the ground.
As the rest of The Nightfly spins out, Fagen's theme described in the liner notes as a sketch of "certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late '50s and early '60s" makes it one of the rare pop records that perfectly defines the era of its creation, but also seems timeless. As a continuation of the slick pop-jazz formulas perfected by the Dan, The Nightfly is a shimmering fictional autobiography, dramatic without melodrama. The songs sound cream-fat with the coked-up opulence of the '80s, nostalgic for the stainless-steel futurism of the '50s, and, a quarter- century later, every bit as iridescent.
Now comes his new record, Morph the Cat, breaking a thirteen-year silence to reflect how much the world has changed. Fagen sees it as the final installment of a trilogy that opened with Nightfly and continued with 1993's midlife meditation Kamakiriad. To complete the story, Morph reveals the 58-year-old's ruminations on death his own, his mother's, his heroes' and the paranoia of the modern world.
It's a record Fagen has wryly referred to as "Your average soulful and sexy masterpiece about love, death, and homeland defense." Every song depicts a distinctly contemporary scenario, from the flying cat/allegory visiting the paranoid citizens of New York on the title track to the draconian Republican thugs who creep around "Mary Shut the Door." On "The Night Belongs to Mona" a dreamy number set to an R&B strut Fagen sings of a woman who can hardly stand to leave her apartment on the fortieth floor of a Chelsea tower. But as much as the themes are sharpened with a post-9/11 edge, the music (produced with longtime Dan engineer Elliot Scheiner) is reliably nimble, relentlessly smooth, and just as likely as the rest of the Fagen catalogue to inspire guys in braided leather belts to hit the dancefloor. When Fagen converses with Ray Charles' ghost on "What I Do" and hits on a female airport security guard during "Security Joan" (Honey, you know I ain't no terrorist!), he has a youthful playfulness that hasn't aged a day since he started telling this story in 1981.
And that's why hearing Fagen speak with such candor about the darkest corners of society seems more lasting than the chintzy gloom-and-doom of post-9/11 records from Important Songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle. Maybe it's due to the time capsule Fagen still uses to sail his distinct vessel of yacht-rock he recently admitted he hasn't listened to anything new in thirty years. But Morph's brightly glossy sonic accompaniment sets the abundance of lyrically morbid themes in high contrast. And when the record draws to a close with a "Morph the Cat" reprise (the only tune that comes anywhere near being under three minutes), Fagen's protagonists are found crowded in the streets with their eyes trained skyward, in the same city they departed from on The Nightfly's opening strains. They're back in NYC now, and whether they're looking skyward for a sign of salvation or devastation just depends on how you hear it.
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