No matter how pristine, how buffed to perfection Steely Dan's music was in the 1970s, it still resonated with a coy subversiveness. Maybe it was the way the group unapologetically adhered to sophistication — jazz-based chords, melodies and improvisation, matched with elliptical lyrics — during a time when disco was dumbing down pop and punk was shaking up rock. Maybe it was the thinly veiled references to drugs and bad behavior in those lyrics. Maybe it was Donald Fagen's cutting whine of a voice. Steely Dan sold a lot of records in the '70s, yes, but the cult of true heads — the ones who really, really got it — I think was much smaller than sales figures suggest.
That's why the Dan's two post-reunion albums, Two Against Nature (2000) and Everything Must Go (2003), were such crushing disappointments to the diehards (certainly myself and those I've talked to, at least). On those efforts, all that remained was the sheen — Becker and Fagen had become like an Armani jacket on a hanger rather than draped over a swaggering dandy.
Compared to those failures, Donald Fagen's new Morph the Cat, his third solo effort, is a qualified success. He's managed to dredge up some of the warmth and soul, and a bit of the swing, that Steely Dan delivered, however coolly, in its glory days. While the grooves tend to hew a bit too closely to medium tempos and suave funk, they're sufficiently silky. There are some good hooks here as well, especially the affable chorus to "H Gang," the first single, and "What I Do," which listens in on an imaginary conversation between a wet-behind-the-ears Fagen and Ray Charles.
When compared with vintage Steely Dan, though (and, fair or not, that's what this article is all about), Morph the Cat is notably short on melodic ingenuity. Fagen works from a limited palette, building songs around one or two melodic motifs. There's nothing here to rival such labyrinthine yet focused forays as "Aja," "Bad Sneakers," "The Royal Scam," "Black Cow" and so many others.
One of the reasons Fagen has been able to recapture some of the organic qualities heard in his earlier music is his use of a regular studio band made up of seasoned vets. But relying on these core musicians also has a down side, and that is to instill a certain homogeneity. As a result, Morph the Cat is decidedly short on surprises. Sure, the arrangements are impeccable, especially the horn charts, and the band locks in. But the main soloists — guitarists Jon Herrington and Wayne Krantz, and a handful of horn players — seem so preoccupied with being tasteful that they fail to make potent statements. There's nothing on Morph that comes remotely close to Larry Carlton's guitar breaks on "Kid Charlemagne," Wayne Shorter's tenor bursting from the speakers on "Aja," Phil Woods' boppish alto flights during "Dr. Wu" or Steve Gadd's galvanic drum fills on "Aja."
Worse yet, the solos often occur during extended codas that, instead of bringing the songs to climaxes, come off as mere padding. (The 53-minute disc is laden with such padding; it even closes with a 3-minute instrumental reprise of the album-opening title song.)
Fagen has characterized Morph the Cat as the third in a trilogy of solo efforts that includes The Nightfly (1982) and Kamakiriad (1993). Thematically, the new one focuses on New York City. The fanciful title character descends on the city, oozing through town and bestowing a kind of rapture on the citizenry. But that's about as far as this particular thread goes. Other songs focus on death, sex and endings, often with cagily apocalyptic undertones.
In "The Night Belongs to Mona," the disc's most poignant character stays holed up in a Chelsea high-rise, dancing the night away all by her lonesome. In the album's only overt reference to 9/11, her friends wonder, "Was it the fire downtown/ That turned her world around?"
More often that not, Fagen falls back on clever and cute, especially on "Security Joan," where the narrator gets hung up at an airport security checkpoint and falls for the girl with the wand.
Morph's sharpest play on words is the title "What I Do," an answer to Brother Ray's seminal R&B classic "What'd I Say." But these little insider references, so common on '70s Dan songs, are now a rarity. Fagen has become a facile writer of witty stories. He appears to have put his Dan-esque obliqueness in the rearview.
There's nothing as chewy as "Aja, when all my dime dancing is through, I run to you," no convoluted puzzles like the wacko chorus from "Gaucho:" "Who is the gaucho amigo/ Why is he standing/ In your spangled leather poncho/ And your elevator shoes/ Bodacious cowboys/ Such as your friend/ Will never be welcome here/ High in the Custerdome."
To top it off, Fagen's singing has lost some of its teeth. Whereas his earlier vocals could punctuate a lyric with an extra coating of irony or bitterness, on Morph he tends to shroud them in creamy backup harmonies, or, worse yet, fall back on an amorphous falsetto.
OK, I said Morph the Cat was a qualified success. I still routinely listen to decades-old Steely Dan music, and occasionally make new discoveries. I don't get the sense that this Fagen effort will be within shoving distance of my CD player in three months. But it'll still be a lot closer than the last two Steely Dan albums.