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Steely Dan - Aja CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.18 | 295 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars Whether or not you like Aja, or just don't like it as much as Steely Dan fans typically do, you can't deny that it is the album that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker tirelessly strove to make, the logical culmination of their style and approach to music. The duo have all but admitted as much and in any event, the lyrics of songs like Deacon Blues bear it out. Perhaps fighting a nagging feeling that they hadn't quite got to where they should have with their talent, Fagen and Becker made a last ditch effort at writing a masterpiece and, BOOM!, they came back with one for the ages. Aja is to Steely Dan as Paranoid is to Black Sabbath or Moving Pictures to Rush. You may argue that there are better albums to showcase these bands' greatness from a hardcore fan's point of view but they are, for better or worse, the albums by which the popular image of these bands has been defined and the ones that will ensure the bands themselves are remembered for a long time by rock listeners.

That being the case, it cannot be said that this was just another Steely Dan album that the press whimsically talked up for the 'gullible' record-buying public to faithfully lap up. While the essential Steely Dan style is very much in evidence here, there are also significant, even drastic, differences on Aja as opposed to their previous work.

Up to this point, Steely Dan tended to play the West Coast doppelgangers of Sparks, i.e, nerdy, playfully misogynist and daring but not emotional in the conventional sense of the word. I say West Coast to emphasise the difference between them and Sparks. Dan stuck to jazz-rock/pop and kept the basic formula safe and appealing, putting all the adventure in the chords while Sparks were outrageous even at a superficial level. Such music does appeal to, well, nerdy left-brained listeners who have grown tired of the myriad cliches reprised by pop to express a very narrow band of emotions (three words in fact: love, love, love). But perhaps there may be listeners who are not necessarily addicted to cookie cutter pop but not so nerdy as to prefer music without the emotions. They may still want to hear some pain, yearning, warmth in the music and both bands shut themselves out of that market with their approach.

I am not sure that Fagen or Becker have ever admitted to wanting to consciously change that with Aja. It may have been an outcome of their sheer confidence in their songwriting skills at the point combined with their desperation to break through. Whatever it was, for the first time (and possibly the last?), Steely Dan dropped their guard and let go on Aja. Gradually, feelings of love, longing and rebellion began to pour out from their music. But hold it, they were still very much the calculating LA cats (New York in point of fact) so they controlled the flow, resulting in subtly beautiful rather than cathartic music.

A case in point is in the title track. If you feel inclined to pass a jaded judgment on its lengthy interludes, just try listening to Aja on a cool, rainy evening. Preferably gentle rain, not a downpour. Chances are you finally make sense of the song or, rather, connect with its emotions. The sounds almost do seem to gently hit the speakers like little raindrops. Nowhere else does this parallel make more sense to me than Steve Gadd's incredible coda. He is playing complex and furious patterns but the sound is very beautiful and...atmospheric. Steely Dan have never been this expansive and contemplative. As they remark on the Classic Albums documentary (a must watch while we are on that), they were feeling really lucky that day and decided to go with the flow and get a bit more ambitious.

A few cliched ideas seep in on Deacon Blues but Donald Fagen sings it with a lot of heart. He is not meant to sound so melodic but he tries really hard anyhow and with a little help from their army of sessions musicians, pulls it off. The duo reveal on the documentary that it is almost an autobiographical song. Steely Dan plead that they would just like to be famous losers if they cannot make it. In the event, that was fortunately not required but the song reveals a mix of despair and defiance ("Sue me if I play too long").

Just in case you thought they really ought to be sued for playing too long, Steely Dan make it short and sweet again, but with their newfound depth of feeling, on Home At Last. It is often said to be their best song and it is hard to disagree. Beautiful guitar leads and horns bring up the jazz element, but it's all underpinned by a very bluesy riff. If Aja is the culmination of Steely Dan's musical philosophy, Home At Last in itself is the culmination of Aja. It maintains the unhurried, relaxed feeling that envelopes the album but with nary a note too many.

The other tracks are excellent but fall a bit short of the unusual introspection and awareness that the above three possess. Let's just say the smart cats hedged their bets anyway and put in some of the stuff that is bound to work for Steely Dan loyalists. Peg, Josie and I Got The News all have great guitar leads and Black Cow has some exquisite piano. Crucially, they balance the return to snide lyrics by maintaining the relaxed, atmospheric flavour of the album (especially Black Cow).

As an overall experience, Aja is sumptuously consistent and leaves you with the distinct feeling of having had a wonderful, memorable time and longing for some more. As alluded to earlier, Steely Dan achieved this with not a little bit of support from their fantastic session musicians. I repeat myself but do check out that documentary to get an insight into what they brought to the table; they weren't just robots blindly obeying the instructions of the masters, far from it.

At the time, it perhaps seemed like a new beginning. Having battled to earn their own place in the crowd of arena-oriented rock with fret-strutting guitar Gods, Steely Dan had finally triumphed with Aja. It could have heralded a new wave of popularity for studio cats working with brilliant sessions musicians. Instead, Steely Dan themselves ushered in the computer age with Gaucho (never mind that they utilised many sessions musicians for that one too) and musicians could put together the music they wanted on the computer without even having to depend on sessions musicians.

In hindsight, Aja wound up as a strange corporate rock swan song for prog and all that it stood for. It brought curtains down on an era of expensive recordings involving the best musicians and technicians (consider that some prog rock bands utilised an orchestra for some of their recordings). The age of obsessive perfectionism and excess in rock was over and there hasn't really been a revival. Maybe because an album like Aja is so hard to top. Five stars.

rogerthat | 5/5 |


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