When last heard from, Steely Dan was in a stylish funk.
The year was 1980, the album was "Gaucho," and the sound was slick and soulful, full of lithe, danceable grooves but spiked with enough jazzy sophistication to satisfy the brainiest of listeners. Even so, there wasn't a lot of satisfaction to be heard in the songs themselves, as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen -- the braintrust behind the band -- wrestled with problems ranging from existential anomie to girlfriends too young to appreciate Aretha Franklin.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and it's almost as if time stood still for Steely Dan. Because even though "Two Against Nature" (Giant 73281, arriving in stores today) is the group's first new album since "Gaucho," it finds the Dan picking up precisely where it left off.
OK, so maybe the girls are a little younger this time around, and the guys a lot older. Perhaps the jazz influence is a bit more overt, and the pop content more classic than current. And it could be that the old angst is fading, replaced by a grudging, slightly cynical acceptance.
But hey -- who wanted the band to make exactly the same album as last time? What Steely Dan has done is actually better, resulting in a new album that somehow feels as familiar as old vinyl.
From the first notes of "Gaslighting Abby," it's clear that the group is back in the pocket. There's the electric piano -- not a synthesized simulacrum, but a vintage Rhodes -- stabbing cool, jazzy chords over a sizzling hi-hat cymbal pattern while the guitar chokes out a crisp, funky rhythm lick. It's exactly the sort of smooth, '70s-style groove that hip-hop and R&B acts adore.
Like almost everything else on the album, "Gaslighting Abby" is a breathtakingly clever construction. It isn't just that the lyric is deliciously oblique as it tells the tale of a man and his lover planning the "accidental" death of the man's wife; the music, too, is wonderfully sly, allowing the sinuous allure of the groove to seduce the listener before the music's sophistication has a chance to sink in.
On the page, the chord structure of the chorus would put a jazz musician to shame, but the only audible nod to jazz is a beboppish interlude by bass clarinet and electric piano. Otherwise, the sound is as accessible as anything on the radio.
It helps that the band's musical vocabulary remains largely unchanged. It's easy to hear echoes of "Babylon Sisters" in the minor-chord vamp that sets up "Jack of Speed," or to find something reminiscent of "Aja" in the lush sweep of "West of Hollywood." That's part of the reason the album, like the rest of the Steely Dan catalog, seems so timeless.
But as much as Becker and Fagen like to play with the listener's expectations on a musical level, their lyrics go in for mind games to an even greater degree.
On the surface, "What a Shame About Me" seems to be classic Steely Dan: A tale told by a loser, full of urban references and self-deprecating humor. Basically, it's about a guy who runs into his old college girlfriend. She's a gorgeous movie star, and their old buddies are all big successes. But our hero is anything but, a blocked writer just out of rehab, stacking books in a second-hand store.
But by the song's end, she's trying to resurrect the ghosts of the past while he stays put, grounded in the gritty reality of failure. It's hardly a fairy-tale resolution, but no matter how much we might think him a fool for blocking her pass, we have to admit there's something vaguely heroic about his ability to see things as they are.
It's not as if every loser gets celebrated on "Two Against Nature." The titular hero definitely gets his in "Cousin Dupree," a song about a guy who crashes at his aunt's house for a few weeks and suddenly notices what a fox his little cousin has become.
Hormones working overtime, he schemes to establish "a down-home family romance," only to be shot down in the last verse by his cousin, who acidly inquires if his mind "has turned to applesauce." Wickedly funny, effortlessly funky and as well-told as a short story, it's an inspired piece of songwriting -- and all the more admirable for the fact it doesn't make a big deal about how smartly it has been constructed.
Then again, there's no need for these guys to show off. Part of the reason Steely Dan has endured is that there's such depth to the songs, making it easy to go back to them again and again. And even though "Two Against Nature" has only just arrived, it already feels like a classic.
"Two Against Nature"
Sun score: * * * *