Everything Must Go: Irony's Second Coming
By
Ken Kase
9/28/2003 6:04:54 PM

After breaking a twenty year silence in 2000 with the excellent Two Against Nature [Reprise], Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have treated fans and irritated critics with yet another literate, vividly realized farce in their latest album. It’s a fact that the truly hip are usually the most maligned and misunderstood. This duo has certainly had their share of detractors who have insisted on criticizing their efforts by imposing mediocre rock biz standards on music they didn't understand. But hey, Dom Perignon never gets a fair shake from lite beer drinkers anyway.

Everything Must Go [Warner Bros.] flies in the face of those who proclaimed 9/11 to be a biblical sign of the Death of Irony. Irony's two main pop proponents have produced an album with apocalyptic chill and an aging hipster swagger slyly chuckling at the destruction of corporate culture and all of the principles of hyper-consumerism we once held dear. The themes in the songs aptly reflect the times of a society gone awry as reality seeps into a once-nicely furnished bubble. The characters these songs portray are obsessive, nervous and resigned to the inevitable decay of their prospects. Sound familiar?

All of this heady material isn't as dark and depressing as it sounds. The music is typically Dan-ish; harmonically rich, hook-filled, jazz-informed, smart and impeccably performed by crack musicians. These guys write the best bridges in the business, elevating a simple, altered blues form to dizzy heights and then seamlessly touching down for the final payoff, time and time again.

And this is precisely where they got into trouble with rock critics thirty years ago. Anything that smacks of musical credibility must be calculated and insincere, right? Bullshit. Their influences, both musical and literary, don't even register as much as a blip on most critics' radar and therefore, their ability to accurately assess the value of Steely Dan's work is severely limited and their work is routinely and summarily dismissed. The typical rock cannon's penchant for tortured self-flagellation or childish prick-waving doesn't leave much room for this sort of thing.

Take "Godwhaker", for example. The sheer lunacy of an angry mob moving in on the Almighty for one final showdown before the shithouse goes up in flames is sure to raise the ire of many; but the deep, funky groove makes it all seem like fitting retribution for the icon looming over a society steeped in shallowness. This kind of delicious subversion is what has made these guys so great. Danceable blasphemy makes this song the most riveting of the collection with its dark celestial imagery mingled with the down-and-dirty language of a mob hit.

"The Last Mall" Attention all shoppers / It's Cancellation Day! / Yes, the Big Adios / Is just a few hours away), "Things I Miss the Most" The talk / The sex / Somebody to trust / The comfy Eames chair / The good copper pans / The '54 Strat and "Everything Must Go" Let's admit the bastards beat us / I move to dissolve the corporation / In a pool of margaritas accurately document the boom-and-bust futility of our culture from big corporations to the hapless individual caught up in and lapping up the swill they’ve equally helped to concoct.

"Pixeleen" is an endearing, iconic portrait of a teenage girl disconnected from the reality of her surroundings through the escapism of computer games, with gorgeous harmonies and great throwaway lines Better keep it real--or whatever. "Green Book" and "Slang of Ages" are new depictions of gritty street characters in decaying urban backdrops which have so consistently fascinated Becker and Fagen lo these many years. When pitted against the end-of-the-world charm of the rest of the album, these portraits seem all the more poignant and desperate.

Oh, come now--it's all in fun. Where's your sense of humor? Better bring it along. Becker and Fagen are acutely tuned in to the tenor of the times and remain utterly relevant. This notion coupled with the inventiveness and execution of the music pretty much wraps up the case for the merits of Everything Must Go. A careful balance of the cerebral and visceral make it a score for smart-ass college boys everywhere.

Steely Dan has produced great work here which will most likely be misunderstood by critics and (God help us) smooth jazz creeps who miss the point entirely. Let's hope that the album's title is not indicative of their next career move.

Read NT's review of Bruan Sweet's book, Steely Dan: A Complete Guide to Their Music.

 

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