Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428
With each successive album, Steely Dan's popular success and appeal become more obscured by sundry admirers' claims of abstruseness and complexity. To some it seems inevitable that the Dan will eventually produce the Finnegans Wake of rock…. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bow to no one in the matter of composing immaculate, catchy cul-de-sacs, but it is that same immaculateness, the way the words, as impenetrable as they may appear, fit with metrical seamlessness into the melodies that makes their impenetrability of little importance to any casual listener caught up in the sound of the entire song.
That said, one must immediately note that their latest, The Royal Scam, is the Dan's most atypical record, possessing neither obvious AM material nor seductive lyrical mysteriousness….
[On The Royal Scam there] is little of the self-confident gentleness that dotted Pretzel Logic, less still of the omniscience that suffused Katy Lied. The Royal Scam is a transitional album for Steely Dan; melody dominates lyric in the sense that the former pushes into new rhythmic areas for the group … while the verbal content is clearer, even mundane, by previous Dan standards.
While Scam is certainly not a concept album, every song—with the possible exception of "The Fez"—concerns a narrator's escape from a crime or sin recently committed. Becker and Fagen have really written the ultimate "outlaw" album here, something that eludes myriad Southern bands because their concept of the outlaw is so limited. Rather than just, say, robbing banks ("Don't Take Me Alive," in which the robber is a "bookkeeper's son"), Becker and Fagen's various protagonists are also solipsistic jewel thieves ("Green Earrings"), spendthrift divorcees ("Haitian Divorce") and murderously jealous lovers ("Everything You Did").
But the Dan's outlaws are also moral ones, guilt-ridden over comparatively minor sins…. "Kid Charlemagne" is a selfish egotist, and suffers for it. "The Fez," a sort of Dan-esque answer to Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," concerns a rather pathetic, if kinky, megalomaniac. At their best, these songs yield up concise surrealist introspection; at their worst, they suggest a paranoid death wish that is very amusing, if a bit unnerving. The lyrics are also pretty histrionic, and perhaps should not be scrutinized too solemnly.
In any event, I doubt that Steely Dan will ever become merely precious or insular; through five albums they have consistently circumvented their complexity with passionate snazziness and fluky, cynical wit. (p. 66)
Kenneth Tucker, in his review of "The Royal Scam," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 216, July 1, 1976, pp. 66-7.
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