A few years ago, it was my privilege to see Steely Dan live in Anaheim, and they were an extraordinary act on stage, playing with free-wheeling power and energy; this was all the more extraordinary because Steely Dan in the studio was a different proposition: they were polished to pop perfection, every instrument and voice meticulously arranged, mixed, and recorded. This was all part of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s agenda of creating radio-ready material which sounded so great that people usually didn’t notice how clever, sarcastic, blackly comic, and sometimes downright mean the lyrics could be.
Aja was the apex of Steely Dan. It is not their best album, for that honor belongs to 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, but they never made a better-sounding album and more well-thought and well-played album. Aja is an elaborate musical saga of masculine relationship to the feminine and the problem of self-definition…and it is, to borrow other critics’ favored adjective, menacing. Mr. Fagen’s vocals hint at darker things even at their most optimsitic, and the sound of he and Mr. Becker’s material is minor-key and foreboding even when the tempo goes up. And yet, of the seven songs in forty minutes or so, only “I Got the News” doesn’t have a memorable hook or melody…all the rest, from the rhythmic break-up song which begins it, “Black Cow,” to the closing, sexually-charged “Josie,” were goldmines ready for Top 40 AM and FM. Except maybe the title track: an eight-minute creation of another world featuring a memorable Wayne Shorter sax solo.
There are three other songs on Aja, and I should mention them all because they’re terrific. “Deacon Blues” is my second-favorite Steely Dan track ever, Mr. Fagen proudly asserting a glorious individuality in self-destruction with female back-up singers and more great saxophone, this time from Pete Christlieb. “Peg” was the big hit single, a somewhat mocking ode with dynamic guitar/keyboard/horn interplay. And the album’s hidden gem is “Home At Last,” on which Messrs. Becker and Fagen drop their cynicism for a few lovely minutes to hint at finding true, serene peace of mind in a gentle ballad…though if it’s with the starry-eyed Peg or the sex-hungry Josie or the otherworldly Aja or someone else is up for debate.
Why isn’t Aja their best album if it’s so superb? Earlier Steely Dan had just as strong music, lyrics, and musicianship, but the production didn’t sound so ultra-tight…there was room for them to stretch, breathe, and unleash more fury. The joy of Countdown to Ecstasy lies in raucous guitars, surging interplay, Mr. Fagen singing with more fire and less control. Aja hinted that Steely Dan’s ambitions were now overtaking them, and its successor Gaucho was so heavily worked over in the studio that it sounded sterile, leading to a two-decade layoff from recording. But Aja is still a pop-rock must-listen for its combination of technical wizardry, intelligence, and just great music. It’s like a big-budget pocorn movie where the script turns out to be surprisingly smart, and if I had a nightclub in L.A. I’d play this album every night.