Finally! We waited 13 years (well, 25, really) for another blistering dose of hipster jazz-influenced pop rock from Donald Fagen. For those with heads buried hopelessly in the sand, Donald Fagen is half of the duo known to us as Steely Dan. Once in a great while, Fagen steps away from the Dan and lets fly with an introspective and personal work; this time called Morph the Cat. Fagen’s first solo work, 1982’s The Nightfly, was a groundbreaking, genre-defining piece of artistry. It was written through the eyes of a youngster growing up in the late 1950s, and presented many different musical styles, all infused with Fagen’s trademark wry, sardonic lyric style and layered, precision arranging. His 1991 follow-up effort, Kamakiriad, had much of that, but lacked the soul and uniform coolness of Nightfly. It was a bit more sterile, and less melodically focused. (Hence my mention of the 25 year wait; I am loathe to admit I was not a huge fan of Kamakiriad...)
Morph the Cat recovers the cool, and takes it to a deeper level. This CD combines what would normally seem to be juxtaposed premises; slick, focused, micrometered arranging and playing; but coupled with an organic, retro feel. Guitarist Dean Parks, who worked on many past Steely Dan CDs, describes working with Fagen/Steely Dan as practicing until its perfect, then practicing it further until it transcends perfect, attaining a looseness, a familiarity, a second nature. So tight that it’s loose. Further, that looseness allows a freedom of expression that can musically speak of and to different eras. This is evidenced most notably in “What I Do”; a tune in which a younger Fagen is talking to the ghost of Ray Charles. The arrangement is staid, subtle; some might stay stiff. However, the musicianship creates a smooth, inexorable, dark groove, and pays homage to Charles’ sublime style with a touching simplicity.
One thing this CD has in spades is groove. If you look up "groove" in the Funk & Wagnall's (yes, I get it, that was funny) audio dictionary, well, you will hear "Brite Nightgown". The straight-up open funk beat complemented by amazing tic-tac guitar work and a bass pocket a mile deep will have you oozing to the beat whether you want to or not. Give up, and give in.
Lyrically, this CD is an exploration of the end of life. Normally, CDs with a body count are encountered only within the realm of gangsta rap, not jazz-pop. Indeed, Morph has three confirmed deaths (in “Brite Nightgown”), a possible suicide (“The Night Belongs to Mona”), and the title cut basically involves citywide rapture along with a portent of utter extinction. One cut (“H Gang”) relates the death of a band and a dream, another (“Mary Shut The Garden Door”) deals with totalitarian government control and corruption, another (“The Great Pagoda Of Funn”) deals with a couple isolating themselves from life. The only upbeat lyric involves a man finding love at the airport security checkpoint (“Security Joan”). In all, you’d think this is pretty dark territory, and in some ways, it is; but it is leavened by an organic warmth of arrangement and tone that wiggles its way under your skin, gets comfortable, and disables your remote control.
I’m finding that this CD in many ways surpasses the greatness of The Nightfly, which I though was heretofore impossible. Morph the Cat is utterly devoid of the pretense of youth; it is a mature and nuanced work, with repeated listens rewarding the listener with increasingly layered comprehension, and a deepening respect for the craft and the mad genius of Donald Fagen.
***** 5 stars out of 4.