Better Late Than Never
Music history has shown that some of the most talented and prominent artists of every genre, especially popular music, fall prey to early demise. Their music is iconized and with some help, big or small, from the fact that there are no present incarnations or product of the late genius. They are the oldies, the classics, the songs that stood the test of time, and one of the groups that have managed to stay in production for such a long time is Steely Dan. Two of the founding members (who have gone through a series of additional members including the likes of country musician Michael McDonald and actor Chevy Chase) Donald Fagen and Walter Becker performed with great acclaim throughout the 1970s and after years of intermission, reunited in the early 1990s, performing to this very day. They still tour, produce music, and are on occasion caught at the Beacon theater in this grand city.
In 1972, they established themselves within the genre of soft rock and a blend of Jazz, a fusion of both, with their debut album of “Can’t Buy a Thrill”. The entire hour stands all these years later as a declaration of the type of work Steely Dan was capable of and has done so for their entire career. The tracks are distinct enough to be set apart from one another, but are often united with their high tones and their haunting refrains. They craft melodies, using both electrical and acoustical in innovative ways, creating different types of sounds and composing what some may consider “cinematic music”. The first track entitled “Dirty Work” actually was overheard on the opening of the 2013 film American Hustle. The numbers leave a lasting impression in terms of sound and with the lyrics, a type of poeticism. When they don’t seem to come from inside references to their own lives, with nearly every voice in this album seeming to talk to a lover or a student who has yet to learn, they stand out as poetic pieces on their own. Brooklyn in particular stands out as a description of the borough with an artful eye and crafting of language.
The album is establishing in the sense that it presents the type of music Steely Dan would put out for nearly their entire career. You’ll rarely find an unpolished note or section in the music that isn’t sanded down with a finish, a seamless transition from one repeated chorus to the next. If you’re a lover of raw sound and emotion, even the live recordings might disappoint you, as they come across the same as or very similar to the studio version. There’s the occasional downbeat, the rough strum of the guitar or plunk of the piano keys, but for the most part, it ends on upticks. The tracks that lead out to rough and rugged emotion coupled with cautionary lyrics can sometimes lead to a shift to the same old sentimental chords and easy listening. In “Fire In The Hole”, the rough start leads you to think it might be a track that doesn’t end on a light-hearted note both intellectually and literally. The abrupt is shift, but does the job in establishing a Steely Dan brand. It’s a type of music designed more for entertainment over creative expression.
Overall, the album did well in its time with two singles in the top 20 of the Billboard charts, receiving 16th as an album overall for the year of 1973. It serves an introductory purpose, a prelude to a decades long career that proved fruitful for both Becker and Fagen. As Fagen went on to do more solo work, including the recent release of an album called “Sunken Condos”, “Thrill” proves a good reference point to see what Fagen contributed to the group overall and what he produces in the absence of his collaborators. It strikes a very similar tone melodically, and lyrically is much different from the tunes that spoke of a youthful spirit that struggled to break out of autocracy. The current tunes today speak of an even greater struggle than the domineering man: the unstoppable force of age.