Review by Brad Walseth
To paraphrase The Tubes - "What do you want from Music?" If you want nursery rhyme level lyrics sung by "pretty" singers, propped up by unimaginative, unchallenging, "charts" - made soggy from being soaked in your basic I-IV-V7 "progressions" then you may never have gotten the radical genius that was (is?) Steely Dan. If you weren't there in the 70's when the often painfully craptacular airwaves suddenly were split wide by a "band" (only nominally as songwriting is shared by keyboardist Donald Fagen and bassist/guitarist Walter Becker along with an ever revolving cast of hot studio cats) that dared to break the boundaries set by white boy blues fakers, boogie-woogie rock and rollers, and shallow end plop music, by (gasp) using the entire spectrum of notes/chords available to the songwriters, you may not understand the revolution that seemed imminent to us through the Dan's unexpectedly welcome appearance. To those of us who grew up listening to our fathers' Brubeck records, something more than a major triad in rock music came as a revelation - "My god, Ninths! Thirteenths! Suspended seconds!!!" Complex, sophisticated arrangements that you could chew on - that were almost so beautiful as to cause a wet dream. And the lyrics! So intelligently bitter and penetrating - one more inside joke against a society that values only good slaves who fit the utilitarian functions and say no more to hinder the factory flow.
Punk's call to arms shattered the decade and helped usher in the fierce reaction against "production values," musicality, and even all guitar solos (unfortunately including the ones that said something ). Steely Dan's Gaucho - a masterpiece of sardonic humor and chilly studio shimmer became a rallying cry for the anarchic forces (despite the recording's many fine attributes - has anyone before David Lynch's "Mullholland Drive" presented sexy, steamy yet ossified Los Angeles in such a morosely frigid fashion?). The seismic musical plates shifted, as the younger demand for a Neolithic beat ultimately overtook the industry and forced Steely Dan into a lengthy retirement only recently broken in the last several years with a couple of fine albums that somewhat tentatively attempted to insert some intelligence back into popular music to little avail. Not to argue whether or not the punk revolution was good or even necessary (certainly the Elton John's and Rod Stewart's of the world needed a good kick in the ass - having descended into egotistical and cocaine induced calcification in their guarded mansions - thus losing any remaining touch they had with the kids in the street), but rather to celebrate music for adults by adults aka: the latest solo effort by Steely Dan front man Donald Fagen - Morph the Cat.
Never blessed with movie star looks or a velvet set of pipes, Fagen has always been a bit of a tough sell to a general public often concerned with such things, and judging by his graying, gaunt appearance on the album sleeve things aren't going to get any easier. His voice, an acquired choice to begin with, has grown thinner and lost range as he ages, but he is thankfully possessed with the knowledge of the importance of "character" in singing/telling the stories in his songs, and his legions of admiring fans wouldn't hear of having anyone else sing them in his distinctive quaver (note the riotous uproar by fans when Walter Becker dared sing the lead on "Slang of Ages" on the last Steely Dan album). Upon close scrutiny, there is something rather appealing about Fagen's tremulous vocalizing - something that reminds one of a schoolyard nerd who fights back against the bullies by using his brains and sneering at their ape-like tendencies.
Not finding much of a commercial audience in the new frontier of modern music ("What's that sound Daddy? Oh that's a trumpet, son. They used to play actual horns back in the bad old days before sampling."), Morph the Cat is Fagen's third solo venture, and seems to possibly be the end of a trilogy (one hopes not - after all Updike seemed to keep resurrecting Rabbit Angstrom didn't he?), functioning as a swan song in much the same way as "Everything Must Go" seems to indicate Steely Dan may have reached their terminus. Whereas, 1982's The Nightfly bounced along joyously, romantically optimistic, and youthfully, and 1993's Kamakiriad seemed a consolidating of songwriting knowledge and craft in middle age, Morph hits on the preoccupation with mortality commonly ascribed to those of advancing age - not surprising in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks and his mother's recent death. Wow! hard sell to the public, right? A musical version of Ingmar Bergman's harrowing "Cries and Whispers"? Wrong. Fagen has produced a most enjoyable album as he faces his fears not only with laughter (and tears), but most importantly with the Groove!
The title track is used as a framing device book-ending these story/songs mostly set in Fagen's hometown of NYC. In it, a "vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of rapture." Not unlike the clouds of debris from WTC cataclysm, the realization of death (personal or national) can result in a euphoric state as the individual seeks to make the best use of his remaining time - to bask in the simple joys of the moments remaining. The music reflects this, as Fagen has reached the point in his life where he knows what he wants and how to get it. Give a group of talented studio musicians (including horn players) some tasty charts and let them work within the framework. Mostly gone are the elaborate, gothic trappings that were the result of worshipping at the altar of Duke Ellington in Steely Dan, instead his time spent in the New York Rock and Soul Revue seems to have sent the singer veering down a lighter, less weighty path, more in the soulful direction of Ray Charles - most obviously in the Ray tribute "What I Do," the finest blues Fagen has sung since Steely Dan's utter detonation of the lazuli genre in "Pretzel Logic."
Riding the groovy textures of sound, is the usual array of Fagen's infamous characters, insightful character studies that tend to populate his musical universe. Momentarily freed by the absence of creepy, sqweegy, ultra-sardonic counterpart "Cousin Dupree" Becker, the subjects range from a couple who build a shell out of their love (or is it only an illusion) to protect them from the evils of reality in the faux-romantic "The Great Pagoda of Funn," to the gothic society outcast/shut-in in "The Night Belongs to Mona." The delightful, vamping "Security Joan" humorously relates the romance between an "airport security babe" and a put-upon, world traveler. And although there isn't a hit single as delicious as previous offerings - "Tomorrow's Girls," "I.G.Y.," or "New Frontier," the rave-up "H-Gang" comes pretty close. Although never a political (in an overt way) artist, Fagen's "Mary Shut the Garden Door" nonetheless works as an effectively sinister piece built on a repeating pair of bass figures, wherein "paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government" - sounds familiar to those of us reeling by further revelations of the Bush administration citizen spying program, eh? But perhaps the centerpiece of this cavalcade is the wonderful "Brite Nightgown." Based on W.C. Fields' (he was a famous comedian before your time, children) quip that Death was the " fellow in the bright nightgown," Fagen takes on the grim reaper and lays him low with a mixture of music and mirth. Over a groove so thick you could spread it on your white bread and nearly choke on it, Fagen presents three different and rather unpleasant deaths, yet does it in a way that makes you want to shake your booty while carrying your casket to the boneyard.
Morph the Cat doesn't perhaps reach the sonic tapestries or the paint-peeling lyrical fire of that a stellar run of albums Steely Dan achieved in the 70's, but it does succeed on several levels. Musically, it is well-played, well-arranged, and darn enjoyable. Lyrically, it is interesting, touching, sly, as well as fun. If this is indeed Fagen's swan song, it is a worthy outro for a man who has given us an entire catalog of fabulous songs - ones that succeeded against great obstacles to prove that popular music needn't be lame, nor that the great musical traditions of the past need be forgotten. Finally, in a world of uncertainty, evil and certain "terminal life" for all, Donald Fagen has found a way to cheat death by giving us the same grand, albeit false solution to all of life's problems he always has espoused. When the going gets rough, don't turn to alcohol, suicide or drugs, just put some Johnny Hodges, Bill Evans, or yes, Mr. Charles on the turntable. Sure, your problems will still be there, but at least you'll be smiling through your pain to the sound.