When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker first began disclosing in 1996 that they'd begun writing songs for the first new Steely Dan CD since 1980's Gaucho, it fueled one of the most eagerly anticipated reunions of the past decade.
When Two Against Nature, the new CD from the reunited duo, finally arrived in stores earlier this year, it delivered on all the expectations with a collection of superbly crafted, intricate and highly appealing songs in the tradition of the band's mega-hit 1977 album, Aja.
The kind of expectations that surrounded the new work could create considerable pressure for many artists. But Fagen, in a recent interview, says he and Becker actually felt a lot more comfortable making Two Against Nature than they did the last time they entered a recording studio as Steely Dan.
"As far as expectations, I don't know," Fagen says. "I think I may have said something about it when we were making Gaucho. Maybe we were more conscious of that (then). Aja had been this huge hit. At that point we were maybe a little burned out, and we sort of knew it. That was a lot of pressure.
But this time we had plenty of ideas, and it was no big deal."
The nine songs on Two Against Nature suggest that Fagen and Becker are at a creative peak. It's one of the strongest CDs of Steely Dan's career. In fact, fans of Aja and Gaucho might feel like Fagen and Becker picked up right as if no time had passed. Two Against Nature has the jazzy, soulful edge of Aja and Gaucho, as the new songs deftly blend a variety of styles.
"Gaslighting Abbie" opens the CD on a decidedly funky note. "What A Shame About Me" recalls the easygoing swing of the Aja song "Deacon Blues." "Cousin Dupree," the album's catchiest tune, has a soulful Rock edge. Things take a jazzier turn on "Negative Girl" and "Two Against Nature," two of the most challenging songs. "Almost Gothic" presents a smoother take on the jazzy Steely Dan signature.
Fagen and Becker first began developing the Steely Dan sound after they met in 1967 as students at Bard College in upstate New York. Fagen says they immediately knew they shared some important, and unique, interests.
"When we were growing up, there were very few people, very few kids our age, like 10 or 11, who were interested in Jazz," Fagen says. "It was kind of a weird eccentric thing to be in those days, because although there was great Jazz around, most kids our age were about to start their Rock & Roll life. We spent a lot of time in our heads thinking about Jazz and Blues when we were pretty young. So when we met, we had a lot of common ground.
"We all knew the same musicians, and we had basically the same tastes, too. We also had a very similar sense of humor, which also I think has partially to do with Jazz and the way Jazz musicians perceive the world with a certain amount of humor."
Initially, Fagen and Becker tried to carve out a niche as songwriters, but that never bore fruit. Eventually a producer, Gary Katz, heard the music Fagen and Becker were writing and helped them land a record deal. Steely Dan debuted in 1972 with the Can't Buy a Thrill album and immediately made an impact with two hit songs, "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years."
As the 1970s wore on and subsequent records like Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied and Aja were released, Steely Dan evolved from a band into a studio project involving Becker, Fagen and studio musicians. Many fans also feel the group's music had shifted by the time of Aja from a Rock-edged sound to a slicker blend that favored Jazz and Soul. Fagen doesn't quite buy that theory.
"I always thought that a lot of what happened with the Aja and Gaucho albums had just as much to do with us starting to write more sophisticated music," Fagen says. "It was harmonically sophisticated and, to a degree, it was just more happening rhythmically as well. But I think just as much it was a function of a change in the way session musicians started playing. By the mid-'70s, there were some young players, and even some of the older players, who were equally at home with playing Jazz and Rhythm & Blues or even Rock music of some kind. I guess musicians who could play all of those things could sort of be considered Funk musicians really.
"By the mid-'70s, there was this kind of hybrid of Jazz and session musician. And the musicians we used on Aja — Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton, a lot of these players, Don Grolnick — had started playing a hybrid style, which eventually turned into Fusion style or whatever you want to call it."
After reaching a creative and commercial peak on Aja, the Fagen-Becker partnership went off-track rather quickly, and the pair went their separate ways after that record.
"When we were writing Gaucho, we were both having our personal problems," Fagen says. "I think we felt that it was reflected in the music to a degree. I like some of the music on Gaucho a lot. But I thought we were a little disappointed in the way it came out. And Walter and I both had to take care of some personal stuff in our lives."
Becker suffered two significant setbacks during the sessions: the suicide of his girlfriend and an accident that left his leg broken in several places.
"When Walter was injured, he got hit by a car and then couldn't come in (to the studio)," Fagen says. "I was sort of left there to clean up what was essentially pretty much of a mess at that point. We had some unfinished tracks and stuff that we weren't sure what to do with and a couple (of songs) we tried didn't work out. I remember just literally missing him in the last third of the production of that record.
"I was really tired at the end of it. At the time, I had been writing these sort of autobiographical tunes and I really wanted to do something on my own, which ended up as The Nightfly. (his 1982 solo CD). So (the split) more or less had to happen that way."
Fans didn't see Fagen and Becker re-emerge as recording artists again until the early 1990s. But there was activity behind the scenes. In fact, Fagen says that by the mid-'80s they were visiting each other for writing sessions and felt some worthy song ideas were emerging.
"We just started writing together, not really trying to limit ourselves," Fagen says of the collaborations. "As I recall, we were thinking of starting, for a while we had the idea we would start a new group with a different name and everything. But it never really came off, I guess. I think what we eventually felt was that it was kind of coy really not to use the (Steely Dan) name, really."
But the actual reunion of Steely Dan would have to wait quite a while. The first signs emerged in 1992, with the second edition of the New York Rock and Soul Revue tour, which featured Fagen and Becker being joined by stars like Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald and Phoebe Snow to sing their own hits as well as some choice Soul covers.
Then in 1993 and 1994 came two Steely Dan tours, which were sandwiched around a pair of solo records, Fagen's 1993 CD, Kamakiriad, and Becker's 1994 CD, 11 Tracks of Whack, each of which was produced by the other Steely Dan partner. Playing Steely Dan songs on those two tours helped convince Fagen and Becker there was still an audience for their music.
With Two Against Nature in stores and a stable backing band now in place, Fagen says further Steely Dan CDs are likely. But he doesn't want to promise too much just yet.
"Right now we're just concentrating on the tour (this summer) and getting our band to sound good," he says. "But I'd really like to start making records that are more conceived as a band now that we've got a band, because that's what we've been working toward in a way. I think we can really do some nice things."