I spent most of the summer travelling through three proximate but culturally distinct Central American countries—Mexico (specifically the Yucatán Peninsula), Cuba, and Belize. Not a typical trio to cover in one trip, but like I said, they were next to each other on a map, and like I didn’t say, I wanted to put as much distance between myself and university as possible. So that happened.
Even though the summer is traditionally a Siberian outpost as far as new music is concerned, I got back and felt like I must, surely, have missed out something big. Amy Winehouse had died while I was in Cuba, but that didn’t really count. I wanted there to have been a massive album release or new discovery that I would be forced to retrospectively acclimatise myself to; instead, there was the silly-season mush, with a few glimpses of quality piercing through a fog of festivals. The internet, it seemed, hadn’t taken kindly to my disappearance off the face of the earth (a sample comment posted on my Facebook wall read: “if you could find yourself it would be a great help, we’ve been looking everywhere, under tables, in little bins, nooks and crannies, inside the LSE penguin, google earth, but you are so little you’re not really there”), and had retaliated by sinking into indifference.
I came back and the most significant thing I could think to do, against the backdrop of starting a new job, was tackling another Steely Dan album. (For those who don’t know, several years ago, on a post-Field Music high, I bought the entire Steely Dan discography on iTunes for £7.99. An education.) Previously, I immersed myself in Aja and The Royal Scam. The former was known to be a career highlight, but also the perfect manifestation of the difficult duo at their most arch and pretentious; I loved it. The latter was the album which preceded it, and was less effusively praised; I loved it.
Now, I took on Pretzel Logic—the last album they made as a normal band i.e. the people writing the music also played the music, and then went and toured in support of the music. It’s also the album that is given the most unqualified plaudits, perhaps because the songs on it are economical, relatively conventional in structure, and less inward-looking than the jazzier compositions on Aja. Now that I have heard thoroughly three of Steely Dan’s albums, I can begin to spot their favourite chord progressions as they unravel; the same goes for their preferred guitar tones, and also the stacked harmonies they put to good use in choruses. Listening to three of their albums in reverse chronological order, as I have done (though Katy Lied, which fits in between Pretzel Logic and The Royal Scam, is still to be broken in), is an interested exercise in that it has allowed me to observe their musical hallmarks in a kind of reverse-evolution.
Whereas certain structures in the human body (e.g. the eye) seem irreducibly complex, the aforementioned Steely Dan hallmarks become, if anything, more appealing the simpler they get. So now, having appreciated the band at the apex of their existence as a ‘rock’ band (a misnomer, but it’ll do), I can see why their later albums are less universally admired. Pretzel Logic is a very fine album, with tasteful musicianship but also a more explicit sense of the fun that sometimes got lost in black humour and tricksy rhythms on the other two albums. The songs zip along tidily, and when they are at their most canonical, e.g. the folky “With A Gun”, it is easy to ascribe to the view that so much recent music is essentially derivative—and only occasionally does justice to the source material (see LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Girls).
I shall finish by quoting one of my own tweets: this may be a bad move, but it neatly presages the next few months of this blog.
See you next time.