Saturday, November 3, 2012

Jazz-funk phenomenologist

Steely Dan freaks will have taken note of Donald Fagen’s new solo album Sunken Condos, and if they’re like me they’ll also have been wearing it out in the two weeks plus since it was released.  This fellow can’t make a bad album.

Steely Dan songs are often character sketches, often of sketchy characters -- the jewel thief of “Green Earrings,” the drug dealer of “Glamour Profession,” the pervert of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” the loser of “What A Shame About Me,” and so forth -- and several of the tunes on the new Fagen album are in this mold.  And as with many Dan songs, some of these sketches are also drawn from a first-person point of view, the music and lyrics together conveying “what it is like” to be the character in question -- a kind of jazz-funk phenomenology.

Sunken Condos takes us inside the head of a Prohibition Era gangster in “Good Stuff”; conveys some post break-up false bravado in “I’m Not the Same Without You”; and shows us how a comely bowler chick looks through the eyes of an admirer in “Miss Marlene.”  Two songs express the anxieties of a man in love with a much younger woman.  The protagonist of “Slinky Thing” holds on to hope; that of “The New Breed” has given it up.  (Those familiar with the Steely Dan tunes “Hey Nineteen” and “Janie Runaway” will detect a running theme.) 

Fagen’s first two solo albums -- The Nightfly and Kamakiriad -- conveyed a kind of chastened but still intact optimism.  If you’d only ever heard them, you might wonder whether the bite in Steely Dan’s dark humor came from Fagen’s partner Walter Becker.  (Becker’s fine first solo album 11 Tracks of Whack was indeed a largely bitter pill, albeit pleasantly bitter.)  But we got a bleaker view of things in Fagen’s third solo effort Morph the Cat.  (Though not without the trademark humor.  “The Night Belongs to Mona,” wherein Fagen plays biting anthropologist rather than phenomenologist, is as cruelly funny as anything Steely Dan has put out.)

The tone of Sunken Condos lies somewhere in between, or maybe beyond -- neither the youthful optimism of The Nightfly, nor the still hopeful middle age of Kamakiriad, nor the disillusioned seniority of Morph the Cat, but the work of a man who’s done with optimism and pessimism alike. 


  1. Fagen has a new album! How on earth did I miss that? Thanks for the tip Dr. Feser!

  2. I've only heard 'Slinky Thing,' but Jon Herington kills it on that track. Steel Dan always attracted some of the best session guitarists over the decades (who can forget Larry Carlton's solo on Kid Charlemagne?). In fact, I recently discovered that freakin' Wayne Krantz played with Steely Dan in the 90's as well as on some solo Fagen stuff:

  3. Lovely piece Ed. I appreciated SD throughout the '70s and liked DF's Nightfly a lot. A class act individually and jointly. I was, however, left indifferent by the acclaimed Two Against Nature.

  4. You lost me after the word "jazz" in the title of the article.

  5. 1. "Hope for the best, expect the worst, and accept what comes."

    ...the work of a man who's done with optimism and pessimism alike.

    Ok, "accept what comes" will have to do.

    2. Sunken Condos? The night belongs to Mona?

    No, the condos did not sink.
    The night belonged to Sandy, sea,
    And piled high the sand she did.
    But, hey, it is what it is.

    (3. I think I may be bored.)

  6. You know, Plato wrote about music in the Republic. Socrates notes that when the modes of the music change so do the laws of the state.

    Music forms the soul.

    Jazz is the worst form of music along with hip-hop, rap. They all have the same origins.

    Like a European should listen to music not his own? Is that Wisdom? Is not Jazz overwhelmingly the music of Leftists?

  7. Don't know many team blue cheerleaders that listen to jazz.

  8. Wheeler has explained in the past that he believes whites to be a superior race. Pay him no mind.

    Anyway, I get a huge kick, Prof. Feser, out of your forays into criticism and so forth. You're neck-and-neck with David Chalmers for the title of Hippest Philosopher. (Maybe you should look into borrowing one of his leather jackets--I think that would push you into the lead.)

  9. @W. Lindsay Wheeler:

    People like you give traditional conservatives and sober race realists a bad name. Jazz is a genuine cultural achievement and it is borne out of a genuine insight into the form of the Good. It exhibits the uniquely African genius for improvisation and sensual intuition into abstract forms.

    If you can't see this, then you aren't just a sober race "realist" who is following the psychometric evidence where ever it leads. Rather, you must be a resentment-loaded white racist who should quit wasting our time and go commune with your fellow travelers over at "alt-right" or some other stupid, neo-pagan, IQ-obsessed fever swamp.

  10. W.LindsayWheeler,

    I've deleted your most recent comment. Feel free to post such stuff at your own blog, but not here.

    Everyone else, don't feel the trolls.

  11. I dunno - Jazz may have had genuine cultural roots back in the 1920s, but nowadays it's just something middle-class white guys pretend to like because they think it makes them look interesting - a bit like going to a U2 gig.

  12. "but nowadays it's just something middle-class white guys pretend to like because they think it makes them look interesting"

    My 15-year-old son studies jazz drumming. He plays several hours a day. He has collected a couple of hundred jazz albums dating from the 20s to the very recent work. The idea he might be just pretending to like this because "it makes him look interesting" is really dumb.

  13. I just conducted a mini-poll, using my wife's geraniums. I asked two questions, and the results were overwhelming. Here are the questions and the results:

    1. Given the context in which it was made, should Corrigan1's comment be taken as a statement of fact?

    Only 1 geranium said, "Yes." The other 14 geraniums said, "No."

    2. Is it good for a father to be proud of his son?

    All 15 geraniums said, "Yes."

  14. Hey, Gene, forgive me for living.