Steely Dan freaks will have taken note of Donald Fagen’s new solo album Sunken Condos, and if they’re like me they’ll also have been wearing it out in the two weeks plus since it was released. This fellow can’t make a bad album.
Steely Dan songs are often character sketches, often of sketchy characters -- the jewel thief of “Green Earrings,” the drug dealer of “Glamour Profession,” the pervert of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” the loser of “What A Shame About Me,” and so forth -- and several of the tunes on the new Fagen album are in this mold. And as with many Dan songs, some of these sketches are also drawn from a first-person point of view, the music and lyrics together conveying “what it is like” to be the character in question -- a kind of jazz-funk phenomenology.
Sunken Condos takes us inside the head of a Prohibition Era gangster in “Good Stuff”; conveys some post break-up false bravado in “I’m Not the Same Without You”; and shows us how a comely bowler chick looks through the eyes of an admirer in “Miss Marlene.” Two songs express the anxieties of a man in love with a much younger woman. The protagonist of “Slinky Thing” holds on to hope; that of “The New Breed” has given it up. (Those familiar with the Steely Dan tunes “Hey Nineteen” and “Janie Runaway” will detect a running theme.)
Fagen’s first two solo albums -- The Nightfly and Kamakiriad -- conveyed a kind of chastened but still intact optimism. If you’d only ever heard them, you might wonder whether the bite in Steely Dan’s dark humor came from Fagen’s partner Walter Becker. (Becker’s fine first solo album 11 Tracks of Whack was indeed a largely bitter pill, albeit pleasantly bitter.) But we got a bleaker view of things in Fagen’s third solo effort Morph the Cat. (Though not without the trademark humor. “The Night Belongs to Mona,”wherein Fagen plays biting anthropologist rather than phenomenologist, is as cruelly funny as anything Steely Dan has put out.)
The tone of Sunken Condos lies somewhere in between, or maybe beyond -- neither the youthful optimism of The Nightfly, nor the still hopeful middle age of Kamakiriad, nor the disillusioned seniority of Morph the Cat, but the work of a man who’s done with optimism and pessimism alike.