It was altogether unexpected, this premature eruption of spring. One balmy early evening, I am sitting in my car (admittedly not an SUV, but at least a late-model) with the windows down in the middle of a picture-perfect college campus listening to an advance copy of Two Against Nature, the first Steely Dan studio album in 19 years (according to the publicists, anyway I haven't been counting). I watch as girls drift by in shorts and T-shirts, most of life's difficulties still theoretical, and baggy-dressed boys shuffle past, hands in pockets, mostly focused on theory themselves. I wait for swarms of them to flock to me and inquire about the long-awaited new work from these two way-cool deep thinkers. Yet nothing happens. No one even seems to notice. NO ONE! It's a Steely Dan moment, pregnant with possibility and irony.
I drum on the steering wheel to "Gaslighting Abbie" (RealAudio excerpt), and it's as if "FM" never went off the air: the same herky-jerky, precisely elaborated groove with mellow, post-bop horn charts surrounding the same Walter Becker tastefully low-key guitar lines; the same Donald Fagen multitracked, affectless vocals modulating through rigorous chord changes; the same lapidary production (even the sax squeals are perfectly muted); the same characters you'd never want to spend a minute with, let alone 5:54. ... Yes, it's all there!
"What a Shame About Me" slithers suavely through a short story encounter at a used book store in lower Manhattan, backlit by Becker and Fagen's trademark compositional tension between consummately controlled musicianship and lyrical human wreckage. "Janie Runaway" (RealAudio excerpt) depicts a teen wonderwaif falling into the clutches of the smarmiest downtown art-creep they've yet devised that is, until you get to "Cousin Dupree" (RealAudio excerpt), another smarmy bastard who, this time, gets his just desserts in a pared-down, Booker T. shuffle that is a hit, a very palpable hit. As a matter of fact, so is "Jack of Speed," a tale of steep drug decline slaloming over an oh-so-sleek track. (Then again, since we are in Steely Dan land, that may be an oxymoron.) Can you hold your nose and snap your fingers?
If all of this sounds like déjà vu all over again, well, it should. What else would you expect from a band named after a fictional dildo: remarkable consistency, though not much feeling. Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are very likely our last modernists, and now that we've run through post- and post-post-eras, it seems only fitting that they should show up and sound good. Actually, very good. Last time around, they wore out their welcome (with each other, too), and they probably will again. But right now, Two Against Nature marks a timely return of two chilly, heartless hipsters. As Burroughs said of the dildo he made up: "Danny Boy never lets you down."