Steely Dan | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Steely Dan 

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Bands break up for a reason. By the last album in Steely Dan's initial run, 1980's Gaucho, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had buffed their jazz-pilfered chordings and fusionesque tonalities to a sheen as cynical as their increasingly claustrophobic lyrics. But when they reunited in 2000 for Two Against Nature (Warner Bros.), their jaded posturing had been replaced by an all but shameless indulgence in superficiality and lechery. Twenty years earlier, on their last great single, "Hey Nineteen," a 32-year-old Fagen despaired that he and his sweet young bedmate had nothing to talk about in the morning; on the new "Janie Runaway" he was less concerned about keeping the conversation lively than orchestrating a threesome with his jailbait honey and her friend Melanie. The music still basked in its own glib difficulty, but now with a livelier, more wicked intent--vocals resolved effortlessly into complex harmonies as arid as the characters Fagen embodied, horns cornered tricky progressions with the ease of a midlifer's sleek new sports car. This year's Everything Must Go is even more sonically plush, as proud of its shiny surfaces as a swinging single showing off his home entertainment center. But throughout, an impertinent guitar undercuts the mood with nervous chatter, and time is catching up with Fagen's dirty old men. The title track charts the breakup of a relationship through an extended business metaphor ("I move we dissolve this corporation / In a pool of margaritas") that's downright priapic in its staying power, and on "Things I Miss the Most," the dark night of a schlub who sold his soul long ago, Fagen inventories the casualties of his latest divorce: not just "The talk / The sex / Somebody to trust" but "The house on the Vineyard / The house on the gulf coast." Whether lusting after a video-game character (in "Pixeleen"), offering the touchingly out-of-it observation that "the new cashier looks like Jill St. John," or just grooving on New York City's "crazy grid of desire," Fagen makes his case that aging airheads need sympathy too--without ever going so far as to insist they deserve it. Friday, August 8, 8 PM, United Center, 1901 W. Madison; 312-455-4500 or 312-559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Danny Clinch.

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