Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Nightfly

People talk about "Desert Island Discs", those albums you would take with you should you find yourself shipwrecked (and presumably with a medium through which to play music, of course). I've compiled such lists many times, with titles added and dropped. Donald Fagen's 1982 The Nightfly began and remains close to the top of the list.

My tastes have refined and degraded since I first discovered this album, sometime during my senior year of high school (4 or so years after its original release). My music moods shift almost hourly. Is it time for some Gang of Four? Nah, feeling more Horace Silver now? Wait, how about some British Sea Power? All over the map. The Nightfly? Always in the mood for that one.

Fagen was 1/2 of Steely Dan, a group I documented in some detail a few years back in a series of posts. I also described some of that backstory of this album there (thanks in part to Brian Sweet, author of the unauthorized bio, Reelin' in the Years ). The Dan was characterized by razor sharp lyrics and smooth sounds. At least in the later years. In the early to mid 70s, pedal steel guitar was more likely to be heard than synths. Either way, the music reflected a certain jadedness, a caustic worldview that more often than not was despairing. SD's final album (for a while at least) was 1980's Gaucho, a real howl of pain. Fagen regrouped and sans his partner in crime, bassist Walter Becker, created a wistful, surprisingly thoughtful album of recollection.

The tracks on The Nightfly are reminiscences of a simpler time, the Eisenhower and JFK years when technology promised much, including the ability to travel from New York to Paris in 90 minutes ("undersea by rail"). The World's Fair sported gadgetry that fired the imaginations of bohemian and housewife alike. But "by '76 we'll be A O-K"? Didn't quite work out to the rosy expectations. Of course, Fagen recorded "I.G.Y.", the song that features these ideas, in 1981 so hindsight sobers the dream. Looking back on what didn't happen, as well as the burn out that did (for Fagen as much as anyone), gives his album a particular poignancy.

The Nightfly is not a dour affair, however. Unlike the Steely albums, its POV is almost sunny, if in a mildly ironic way (how could it be otherwise?). There's joy in the remake of the old Dion tune "Ruby Baby", complete with background partygoing recorded in the studio. The album's closer "Walk Between Raindrops" is a peppy keyboard waltz across Miami. "Green Flower Street" sort of evokes WEST SIDE STORY with its barrio romance. The tempo is swift and Fagen's voice sounds far more energetic than it had on say, "Third World Man" from Gaucho.

Contemplation and meditation describes the mood of most of the songs. "New Frontier", a wonderful recollection of Cold War life and romance, is bittersweet lyriclly and musically; even the bassline is heartfelt. A clever video was produced as well, with a nerdy teen inviting a young lady into his dad's bomb shelter for some Brubeck. If this was a Steely Dan song, the scenario would've quickly turned lecherous. On The Nightfly, it's a sweet memory.

The title track is narrated by a lonely nighttime DJ at a jazz station. We hear him, in between spinning Sonny Rollins and taking listener calls ("So you say there's a race of men in the trees; you're for tough legislation? Thanks for calling. I wait all night for calls like these.") ruminating on a lost love. In fact, the song is directed at that person. It is such a romantic image of romance. Fagen's patented studio aces contribute such perfect guitar as to stroke our emotions without seeming cloying. "The Goodbye Look" perhaps tells the story of the last day of the Batista regime in Cuba, or maybe just that of a stranded American stuck in a now Communistic society. Fagen's tenor is just right in its sad yet hopeful tone. The Caribbean sounding keyboard conjures sunny isles yet something haunted and defeated about them all the while. Almost muted, as if heard from another room, as part of a dream.

"Maxine" is the most unabashedly emotional paean to (lost) love, as we hear a young man explain to his ladyfriend how they must wait to consummate their committment. After college, he muses, they'll marry and move to Manhattan and live fabulous lives, far away from the dreary suburbs of the now. Fagen himself was stuck in a subdivision in New Jersey, a place he's described with great derision. This and all of the songs on this album contain shards of the autobiographical. Such a personal album for a man previously known for enigmatic verses of snark.

Don't get me wrong, I loved and love Steely Dan's uniqueness. I also admired Fagen's later two solo albums: 1993's Kamakiriad and 2006's Morph the Cat (another is being mixed at the time of this posting). But, to me, The Nighfly is Fagen's definitive work. Every listen since 1987 confirms the album's timelessness. How he managed to make a batch of tunes so rooted in another decade's longing is miraculous. But it's all right there, under the usual post-production gloss: a wounded yet hopeful assessment of Life Thus Far. Even as Fagen was only in his mid-30s at the time, he already had an old soul that saw far more than did his contemporaries.
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