Walter Becker Jon Pareles

Start Your Free Trial

Jon Pareles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download Walter Becker Study Guide

Subscribe Now

They all look alike. The casings are always bland. The sauce, however tasty, is an afterthought. What matters is what's inside, and by the time you know if it's any good, the dumpling is gone.

Steely Dan—Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—do nothing unself-consciously. So it's entirely likely that in "Glamour Profession" on their new album, Gaucho, the coke dealer chooses Szechuan dumplings as celebratory chow in an offhand metaphor for Becker and Fagen's songwriting. With Gaucho's seven songs—which, in the first few plays but not thereafter, tend to sound alike—the casings are the adult-contemporary arrangements, the sauce is the piquant solos and horn charts, and the meat—wait a minute. Is there meat in any pop song?

I think so, although one listener's meat is another's Twinkie. Sometimes popmakers know what the meat of a song is, sometimes not. My operational definition: it's the part that drives your friends crazy, because every time you hear it, you sing along. It can be, but isn't always, a hook; it can be an isolated moment (the scream in [The Rolling Stones's] "Gimme Shelter"), a gimmick (the auto ignition in [Roxy Music's] "Love Is the Drug"), a rhythm (the intro to [Talking Heads's] "Artists Only"), a quirk (Dylan's pauses in "Memphis Blues Again"), a lyric ("and this loneliness won't leave me alone"), and especially the combinations.

Steely Dan's catalogue offers all of the above, in abundance. Yet Becker and Fagen apparently disdain such easy pleasures. As far as they're concerned, their dumplings are packed with songwriterly subtleties like unusual forms, tip-of-the-iceberg lyrics, polytonality, extended melodies. Ideally, what pulls you into their songs isn't identification, but curiosity—sometimes overtly analytic, sometimes just a vague sense that something strange is going on. With each successive album, Becker and Fagen have cut down on anything that might distract from the songs themselves, banishing flash, flippancy, loose ends, and nonstructural surprises…. [The] emphasis on smoothness also has a lot to do with Becker and Fagen's continuing mission: to push pop as far as it will go.

Not to destroy it, or even undermine it. Gaucho includes some of the oddest, densest Steely Dan songs yet….

The real break with the rest of Steely Dan's repertoire is in the lyrics. The irony is muted (but still there, as "Living hard will take its toll" is undercut by the rest of "Glamour Profession"), the humor damped down, but there's a perverse optimism. On their last few albums, the songs have been about outsiders—trapped, exiled, about to get stomped—while on "Gaucho," the outsiders have the upper hand as the normals grumble. The coke dealer, the gaucho, the rival, the 19-year-old, and the guru (in "Time Out of Mind") are all smiling and jolly, while the narrators of "My Rival," "Babylon Sisters," "Gaucho," and "Hey Nineteen" contemplate existential crises. Maybe Becker and Fagen are telling themselves that they can vacate the middle of the road—they don't have to crawl like vipers through suburban streets, they can buy the ranch (house). Gaucho is as subtle as they'll ever have to be.

Jon Pareles, "Steely Dan's Szechuan Dumplings" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 49, December 3-9, 1980, p. 85.