If pop is the music of youth, it's odd to reflect that Everything Must Go sustains the second incarnation of a band that was already feeling its age when it slipped into retirement with Gaucho 23 years ago. When Donald Fagen sang "she thinks I'm crazy but I'm just growing old" on that album's "Hey Nineteen" it seemed like an era was ending.
Indeed there are moments in this successor to 2001's Two Against Nature, the first Steely Dan studio album in 20 years, when Fagen and Walter Becker seem to be going through the motions, when familiar routines from earlier albums seem to have been slotted in to produce mix 'n' match productions rather than organically new compositions. In addition, the duo's stylistic range has narrowed, the lusciously saturated and varied arrangements of the 1970s (and Fagen's own 1983 album The Nightfly) mostly superseded by leaner, bluesier frameworks. Also, despite good solos from tenorists Walt Weiskopf and Chris Potter, the all-star line-ups of old are absent. Nevertheless, the clarity, detail and musical ambition are still here and in a musical climate that, more than ever, values style over content, another Steely Dan album is a positive blessing, a reminder of high musical values jettisoned in the primitivist purge that began sweeping through popular music in the late 1980s.
Given Steely Dan's distinguished track record, new classics may be hard to come by, but three pieces here compare favourably with the masterpieces of the 70s: "Slang of Ages" introduces Becker's first vocal in Steely Dan's three-decade history and the combination of funky blues shuffle and blooming, lyrical middle-seven (that's right) is a perfect illustration of the transmutation of the blues that lies at the root of many Becker and Fagen songs. "Green Book" has a five-foot deep groove dominated by a vinegary, menacing chord cluster and punctuated by a delicious Headhunters-type unison blues refrain, and "Lunch with Gina" develops a bouncing shuffle vamp into a bright 20-bar blues sequence with a surprisingly sinewy Fagen synth solo.
The successful rebirth of Steely Dan may, at least in part, be a symptom of the retrospective environment that has nurtured numerous revivals since pop went seriously post-modern in the late 80s. One difference in the case of Steely Dan is that although it's second time around, they're still way ahead of their time.
By: Mark Gilbert