Album review: Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos

Because his output seems more personal and accessible when not paired with Steely Dan bandmate Walter Becker, each new Donald Fagen album announces itself as an occasion beyond the expected high level of craftsmanship. The rarity of each release only compounds the sense that something special has been gifted to the world — Sunken Condos is only the fourth solo album Fagen has released in the past 30 years. If we're to abide by the artist's designation of his first three efforts as a trilogy, the latest might also be the beginning of a new chapter, albeit one that recalls the pleasures of past efforts. More so than Everything Must Go, Sunken Condos sounds like an even-better-than-the-original sequel to Dan's 2000 comeback, Two Against Nature. If that album was only sporadically a black comedy about the carnal desire for pretty young things, Sunken Condos is consistently about the real-life worry and doubt that set in when you've scored a piece of ass that everyone else wants. It's also Fagen's catchiest, most direct and soulful album to date. (Warner Bros. Records)

Funkier than the contemplative Morph the Cat and the previous two Dan efforts, Sunken Condos finds Fagen in a feisty mood. And the reason for that mood is women, who are either turning him on or keeping him wondering when he'll be given his walking papers. Opener "Slinky Thing" drops into a deep groove that overcomes its forced rhymes and adds heft to the story of an older man who's constantly being reminded by everyone — including himself — how lucky he is to be with his hot young girlfriend. Think of it as a mature version of the sleazy "Hey Nineteen," right down to a closing refrain that's nearly as sticky as "the Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian..."

The upbeat "I'm Not the Same Without You" is too easy in its irony, its inversion of the typical breakup song overwhelming whatever pathos Fagen is trying to sell through a character who tells his ex, "I'm evolving at a really astounding rate of speed." But it's also a memorable creation, highlighted by an expressive harmonica that recurs throughout the album along with Freddie Washington's deep-in-the-pocket bass.

Even when Fagen's conceit is expressly self-pitying — "The New Breed" finds its narrator singing to the young computer whiz who's won over his girlfriend — it is redeemed with strong hooks and playful lyrics: "I get it / You look at me and think, 'He's ready for Jurassic Park.'" "Weather in My Head" is persuasive, tormented blues, its passionate guitar licks getting a sweet complement when the brass section kicks in. Sometimes the horns are expressive ("Memorabilia") and elsewhere they just sound tasty, as on the "I.G.Y."-ish "Miss Marlene," Fagen's ode to a badass bowler "with the long skinny legs" whose "ball would ride a moonbeam on the inside line."

The seedy noir of "Good Stuff" would fit nicely on a Dan album. It also allows Fagen a bit of nasty catharsis when the narrator pops his main squeeze and the guy giving her some backdoor loving; the intricate storytelling of the song showcases a well-known Fagen strength. So it's profoundly enjoyable when the intellectual cuts loose on the Isaac Hayes cover "Out of the Ghetto" — complete with funk-soul '70s vocal phrasing — and makes us believe it when he tells his woman, "your love is like a honey drip." The arrangement is armed with a booty-shaking bassline and celebratory clarinet befitting a song about a sexual dynamo — the kind of girl that Fagen praises in album closer "Planet d'Rhonda."

Throughout the album, Fagen identifies with a dilemma that comes with advanced age: the attractive "flatline attitude" and smarts that initially attract women must eventually go up against "young and strong" guys who "own the night." On Sunken Condos, the solution is to savor the moment, round up your band of crack studio session men, and let it all out.

Critics' Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars.


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