Sunday, November 25, 2012

Calculated Irony: Donald Fagen's Sunken Condos

The cover of Donald Fagen's fourth solo album, Sunken Condos (Reprise, 2012), features an illustration of a giant fish tank, only this time a glass condo glistens in the deep water like a typical castle. The CD jacket unfolds to reveal the interior of a condo unit just under the surface with the figure of a woman either about to succumb due to a lack of oxygen, or to become a mermaid. Her eyes are closed and her fetal-like position could also mean she’s about to be re-born. The ambiguity is not lost on me, but the cover, like most of Steely Dan’s records, are distinguished by their simple illustrations and colour schemes. (Covers as a tease to what the music might be about) For this album, the cover tries to satirize climate change to the extreme.

Six years after Morph the Cat, Fagen is clearly back. Despite the years between them, each record is a well-developed, thoughtful recording distinguished by the sound of Fagen’s smooth voice coupled with the most sophisticated arrangements in pop. Sunken Condos is no exception to the rule. But while this album may be outstanding in sound, the songs themselves fail to stand out. One could conclude that this is an album of songs that intentionally look inward. The evidence is found in the song, “Weather in My Head”:

“The air is boiling – sun on my back
Inside I’m frozen girl – I’m about to crack
They may fix
The weather in the world
Just like Mr. Gore said
But tell me what’s to be done
Lord – ‘bout the weather in my head”

Donald Fagen
Fagen has always made great use of metaphor and passive observation to tell his stories, “Weather in My Head” is a perfect example. But it’s as if Fagen has put his proverbial head in the sand (or in this case underwater), looking to escape. And Sunken Condos is escapist. But Fagen’s talent as a lyricist has also relied on his powers of observing the world while trying to understand his place in it. The sense of irony arrives when he subtly admits he’s a part of it. That's something which is missing here. Instead Fagen is  above it all spitting venom on lost loves ("Miss Marlene," "I’m Not the Same Without You") to celebrating sexual proclivities ("Slinky Thing," "Planet D’Rhonda"), all with a dash of humour fitting an aging pop star. (Fagen will turn 65 in January.) Fagen is almost afraid of being taken seriously and that ambiguity is often part of his art. Musically, Sunken Condos sounds like a 70s album. Every song has a groove with little variation from one track to another. The exception is the stand out intentionally disco sounding version of Isaac Hayes’s “Out of the Ghetto.”

So while this album isn’t the strongest of Fagen’s solo efforts to date, it has all the typical horn arrangements and funky bottom typical of Steely Dan’s patented sound. Guitar licks from such stalwart musicians as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Jon Herington, sharpen the music, but there are no rough edges. As a result, the songs become fodder for fans of smooth jazz and soft-rock radio stations. It’s a pity that his ironic lyrics will likely be lost on them.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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