Adjectives like warm and nostalgic rarely are applied to the cynical and bittersweet music of Steely Dan. But they certainly describe the moods evoked by “The Nightfly,” the first solo album by the cryptic band’s singer, Donald Fagen. Working apart from the barbed sensibilities of his Steely Dan partner Walter Becker, Fagen fashioned an elegant pop album that engagingly recalls his years growing up on the East Coast during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Allusions to uncluttered romance, cool jazz, ‘50s pop culture and cold war politics all found their way into the album’s vivid lyrical tapestry.
In the rhythmically effervescent “New Frontier,” Fagen captured both the anxieties and the innocence of the era, smartly juxtaposing images of suburban fallout shelters with references to Tuesday Weld and Dave Brubeck.
Similarly, the immediately seductive and brightly toned “I.G.Y (International Geophysical Year)” is an ironic look at the unbridled sense of national optimism engendered by the U.S. space program more than 30 years ago.
The majority of tracks on this jazz-inflected album are as guileless and breezy as a Gershwin standard. “Walk Between Raindrops” is a nearly impeccable slice of swing-pop. “Maxine” is a velvety, piano-based ballad. The title song finds Fagen in the shoes of a hip disc jockey named Lester the Nightfly. It is a sparkling cut, with a cool, late-night ambience reflected in the album’s cover photo of Fagen spinning a record, cigarette in hand.
“The Nightfly” arrived two years after Steely Dan’s last album, 1980’s “Gaucho.” Eleven more years would elapse before Fagan’s long-awaited follow-up, “Kamakiriad.”
Fagen and Becker will perform as Steely Dan Sept. 16 and 17 at Irvine Meadows. On tour last year, the duo included several songs from “The Nightfly” in their shows, including “I.G.Y” and “Green Flower Street.”