Walter Becker Michael Watts - Essay

Michael Watts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Aja" sounds graceful, rounded, complete. But it is also a little dry, as if from constant refinement. The reason lies not in the familiar usurpation of technique, but in the exacting ambitions of Becker and Fagen, forever trying to integrate their jazz affections with pop appeal. For all its brilliant polish and acute sensibilities, "Aja" has less surface attraction than any other Steely Dan album.

However, although the ambience may strike some as cerebral, Steely Dan continue to work within a recognisable format of song. There is much here that I find memorable, and most of all "Deacon Blues," a relatively straightforward ballad—"languid and bitter-sweet," to borrow one of its own lines—that seems to be about the night-club musician as a kind of existentialist figure.

The mood is film noir…. And the chorus … is just about the most haunting they have written, with its images of roulette wheels spinning and Scotch tossed back while the saxophonist plays his own lonesome song.

Their lyrics, indeed, remain as allusive and elusive as ever. They still invite guessing games, and I would say if anything that the songs on "Aja" are about relationships, or lack of them, with women. "Black Cow" … is a put-down of a swinger or hooker. "Josie" is about the good-natured local lay. "Peg" has a sarcastic lyric about a model.

And "I Got The News" features a very clever dialogue with a rich girl whom the author is at that moment screwing!… Even "Deacon Blues," in true Bogey fashion, has the "hero" kissing his girl goodbye and walking away.

Finally, "Home At Last," which is a kind of up-date of the Homeric tale of Odysseus and Penelope, recounts the sailor's traditional fickleness with women; while "Aja," which perhaps has the most specific lyric, is about a girl (Oriental) to whom the narrator always returns.

Throughout the album Steely Dan exemplify the art, little understood in pop music, of saying as much as possible in as few words. And no-one better appreciates the literary technique of irony.

Michael Watts, "Steely Dan: More Enigma Variations," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), September 17, 1977, p. 18.