Thursday, 28 June 2018

Pretzel Logic - Steely Dan

Provenance: I became familiar with two Steely Dan songs right around the same time - 'Do It Again' from Can't Buy a Thrill and 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' from this bad boy, and I bought both albums close together.

Review: I struggle, sometimes. The easiest reviews to write, or so it seems, are those where I find some little scab to pick at, such as an undertow of misogyny; and goodness knows I enjoy giving a band a good shoeing every now and again. The tough ones are when I'm confronted with something I unabashedly love and, furthermore, take seriously. Case in point - Pretzel Logic.

I remember reading stories about how Persian carpet makers would deliberately introduce a single flaw into their otherwise expert designs. This was done to assert that only God's creations could be considered perfect, and that no man should get ideas about his station in life. Well, if there's a Persian Flaw in Pretzel Logic I'll be damned trying to find it. The first two Steely Dan albums were - are - superb, but here they shift gears into another realm altogether. Everything here is fine-tooled, finessed, wrought so delicately that the music itself seems to glint and gleam in a kind of audio pearlescence.

Attempting to play advocatus diaboli for a moment here, I'll try to level a charge or two against the album whilst giving it a listen. For one, it doesn't exactly throb with a primal swamp rhythm. It's certainly not shack-shaking primitivism of the stripe one would encounter with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or even Motorhead. This is music that wipes it feet before entering, for sure. It's an accusation heard often against Steely Dan - that in attempting to achieve technical ecstasy the finished product ends up rather bloodless. I get it. I'm not going to psyche myself up before playing sport by blasting 'Any Major Dude Will Tell You'. Of course not.

And hey, some people just plain don't like the Dan. And those people are wrong.

I'm not going to talk about key changes or thirteenth chords, though as my music professor father-in-law would assert, those things are totally legit to consider when unpacking why Steely Dan (and Pretzel Logic in particular) are so good. I will say that having so many jazz elements bubbling away underneath the surface of eminently hummable and hooky pop songs is a tough thing to pull off, however. And I guess this is why I take Steely Dan seriously, because hearing such consideration and sophistication in popular music is rare (and, I would argue, increasingly so).

Take, for example, the wonderfully kinetic 'Parker's Band'. As a tribute to Bird it's a canny and multifaceted little gem, one in which we don't even hear a snippet of Parker-inspired music until the cavalcade of horns ushering in the end of the track. The lyrics, meanwhile, begin on the same declarative note as music labels adopted to advertise their wares at the time - "Savoy Sides presents a new saxophone sensation!" Just how immersive is that! It's a small detail, no doubt, but exactly the kind of thing that Becker and Fagen agonised over to ensure that their music hit all the marks. Plus the middle eight is perfect:

We will spend a dizzy weekend
Smacked into a trance
Me and you will listen to
A little bit of what made preacher dance

In four lines we get a nod to Dizzy Gillespie, a nod to nodding out and the merest equation of jazz as a surrogate spiritualism. It's true that Steely Dan's lyrics can often seem elliptical to the point of opacity, but my counter to that would be what's the problem? Does everything need to be so literal? Is it not metonym, metaphor, allusion and the rest that work as the very stuff of poetry? Don't get me wrong, I'm not ordaining Steely fucking Dan as the inheritors of James Joyce's mantle. What I'm groping towards is that sometimes the hazy, ill-defined mirages conjured up on Pretzel Logic are perhaps more effective than a more prolix versifying at creating mood. It asks the listener to bring something to the game. I'm pretty sure Edgar Allan Poe was thinking of 'Charlie Freak' when he wrote "music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry."

(I should add, for the uninitiated, that Steely Dan is anything but hard to get into. Even the most teasingly obscure lyrics are wrapped up in the chewiest, sweetest jazz-rock you're likely to hear. Plus, if you watch movies there's always an olive branch to grab hold of - "If the dawn patrol gotta tell you twice / They're gonna do it with a shotgun" crops up in the flinty 'Night By Night', for example. I've mentioned before now the massive influence of cinema I have perceived in Fagen's songwriting.)

As someone who grew up away from American classic rock radio I don't have the ubiquity of Steely Dan to process. When I first became conscious of the fact I was listening to Steely Dan I was already (in law, if not in spirit) an adult. Thus, to a guy who had gorged on all the lumpen blooz-rock the 1970s had to offer, Steely Dan sounded fresh, curious and fizzing with musical ideas. A few years on, and now as the owner of their entire discography, nothing's changed. To me, Steely Dan represent the apogee of what popular music can be, which is a technicolour meld of virtuosity, wit and a blue flame of emotion. The only thing left to add is that, despite lacking the Persian Flaw, I don't even regard Pretzel Logic as their best work. That's for another day...

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