Rested Steely Dan Reels in ‘70s on ‘Nature’

You were expecting grunge? A little New Wave? Some hip-hop and techno touches? Sorry. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen haven’t spent their 20-year vacation looking for ways to update the Steely Dan MO. Insular and still one of a kind, they make the decades disappear with an album that issues effortlessly from their ‘70s work. But the rest has done them good. Brisk and biting, “Two Against Nature” shakes off the malaise and mannerism that crept into its distant predecessor, “Gaucho.”

From the texts, though, it appears that the duo is detecting the same impending shutdown of the boomer generation’s future that inspired Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind.” But instead of dolorous prophet, the Dan is smooth seducer, packing its poison pellets in a bait of gleaming, jazz-enriched, hook-filled, playful pop.

Whether packing it in or grasping at straws, the characters in these stories have hurdled directly from the dreamy decadence of the “Gaucho” days to a narrow ledge. Underage girls occasionally provide relief (comic and otherwise), but virtually all of the relationships outlined in the album are desperate or depraved, or both. Dysfunction is a state happily settled for.

The narratives include some of the sinister scenarios and mysterious characters that Steely Dan fans love to pass the seasons decoding, but the album’s strongest moment is its most poignant: “What a Shame About Me,” a portrait of a man who has scrapped his hopes so completely that he rejects the redemption offered during a chance encounter with an old flame. “This is lower Broadway and you’re talking to a ghost,” he tells her, in a melody line that captures both the promise of youthful dreams and the pain of writing them off. That’s a combination of language and lyricism that we haven’t heard in something like 20 years.



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