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Donald Fagen - The Nightfly

Donal Fagen's "The Nightfly" was his first solo effort after his partnership with Walter Becker went into mothballs and Steely Dan was no longer a recording option.

In it we can see many Steely Dan themes, such as the alienation of the suburban baby boomer in the Lux commercial suburbs of the '60s. However "The Nightfly" is not, nor would I think it was ever meant to be, a follow up to "Gaucho" or any of the previous Steely Dan records. It is definitely a Donald Fagen solo record where he is working through some of his own personal loves and demons. Many of the production values of Steely Dan alumni Gary Katz and Roger Nichols, are present - giving some credence to the view that it's just another Steely Dan record but without Walter Becker - but there are a lot of other reasons which make such a conclusion impossible.

First of all it's a concept record. A good one, admittedly, but in my opinion that doesn't make the concept of a concept album any better. It's just a bad concept. Maybe I'm old fashioned but I say if you want to tell a story, write a book. Part of the way we listen to music is public - it comes in random slices through the airwaves. Albums should and mostly do have some overall cohesiveness, sure, but let's face it -- they're just a collection of songs. Anything that requires a private one-on-one experience to give you the full breadth of meaning is in my opinion overloading the artform with a weight it shouldn't have to bear.

Also, the lyrics on the "Nightfly" are , in comparioson with the cryptic beat brilliance of Steely Dan output, simply too easy to understand. They make sense, and make clear, very personal pictures, and that leaves little room for my imagination to weave one's life through the stories, which was always a characteristic I enjoyed when Donald and Walter wrote together.

I was working in Europe when I first heard the songs from "The Nightfly". I was away from my record collection and not staying long enough to set up another one. The first song I heard was "New Frontier". If all the songs on "The Nightfly" were as good as this, then it would be one of the all-time best records ever made. I heard it sometimes on the Blue Danube Radio being broadcast in English out of Vienna, more often from the "soft rock" station in Munich. I managed to get "New Frontier" and "IGY" (almost as good a song, I thought then) down on tape (mono) and had them in my collection of radio pot-luck singles with me for a couple of years before I finally got the record.

The remaining songs weren't, in my view, up to that standard. "IGY", as noted, has the hallmarks of greatness and is a standout track, just as "Tomorrow's Girls" is on "Kamakiriad". And Donald is really singing on this one, whereas on many of the other tracks he seems to be just talking his way through the verses and only starts singing in the choruses. The lyrics have a great balance of cheerful irony and bittersweet scorn, but they lack the menace and mystery of some of Steely Dan's stranger offerings."IGY" made its way rapidly onto the middle-aged play lists of AM radio and has stayed there ever since but I don't have that same sense of sharing a delicious, but acrid private joke as I do when hearing "Babylon Sisters" in a lift.

There's a nice guitar sound on "Greenflower Street" and it is admirably tight although to my ears the bridge goes just where you'd expect it and somehow I always expected more from the Steely Dan stable. The contrived ending is pure corn and just too "bracket -break" to be believed.

"Ruby Baby" is clearly hommage -- but to what? Schmaltz? "AJA" gave Steely Dan an audience of five million who would buy their records and most of them would have gone out and got "The Nightfly" especially after the eight years of silence, during which their back catalogue was doing great business. I wonder how many got to "Ruby Baby" and went: "What the ...!!"

OK "Ruby Baby" was a good time Lieber-and-Stoller tune. Let's not get too heavy here - it's just music.

"Ruby Baby" segues into "Maxine" - a Donald Fagen tune in more or less the same vein as "Ruby Baby". While it has some great moments of Donald's twisted vocal inflection, it's a bit plodding and a bit of a surprise coming from one of the writing team that gave us the ineffable "Razor Boy".

"New Frontier", as mentioned earlier, is a classic. The years have been harder on it for me than "IGY", but it still stands up.

The title track is central to the concept of this concept album but to me it's a weak song with pedestrian lyrics, hesitant singing, and flabby arrangement. Before I get char-grilled for that -- let me just say that these comments, like all those in this piece, are from a comparative perspective in relation to the body of work of Steely Dan and its principals, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. And since these two people are the finest musical combination of the late 20th century their stature and my acknowledgement of that should be noted. I can understand personal attachment to "The Nightfly" and I can understand that attachment could be very powerful. Its scope is narrower and therefore more concentrated than other Steely Dan records, and therefore if you like the musical style that Donald was working in, and his subject matter means something to you, it stands to reason that you will be more strongly attached to this than others in their body of work, which are a somewhat more disparate and eclectic collections of songs. There are some great moments in the song "The Nighfly" especially the way Fagen sings "at the foot of Mt Belzoni" and the chorus hook "an independent station WJAZ" is sublime. But the verses get a bit wandering and the line "late line till the sun comes through the skylight" just about wanders right off the record. The bridge "You'd never believe it" is succinct and is reminiscent of some of his best, the solo is great and the chorus comes back with a vengenace. So what's wrong with the song? Maybe it's just that weak entry and the weak verse, "I've got plenty of java" and that corny Patton's Kiss-and-Tell stuff - as though Donald was getting a bit tired or unsure about the metaphor he was using, or perhaps didn't quite know how to fit it. The cyncial DJ turning soppy when the sun comes though the skylight just doesn't do it for me.

The bouncy latin rhythms of "The Goodby Look" are neatly appropriate but this semi-parody of tin-pan alley doesn't rise much above it. I can understand the attraction of the musical genre here, and in "Walk between the Raindrops" but the bubbly electric piano in "The Goodbye Look" annoys the crap out of me and the organ in "Walk between the Raindrops" even more so, as does that cool-jazz dance-music feel.

I observe that the songs I like least are the ones where Fagen himself is playing keyboards - and are distinguished by their nostalgia in musical style, rather than lyrically, which is often their saving grace. It seems to me that Donald might have been too long alone and rather too introspective to produce something I would have expected from Steely Dan. As they say, "a hard act to follow".

But what would I know? Nightfly outsold Gaucho. Or so they tell me.

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