Over the years, Steely Dan’s melodic profile has grown lower, more bluesy and plangent, less endowed with hook potential, more elusive and understated. The multi-Grammy-winning Two Against Nature (2000) was rich in this parsimony and surely one of the obliquest statements ever to be named an Album Of The Year. Everything Must Go, its successor, is even more Desert Chic in its blending-into-the-background refusal to grab the melodic higher ground, to give us something to sing along with.
Everything’s in the attitude, and we soon find that this is somewhat rarefied: “We could rent a paranymphic glider/My hypothetical friend/And we could sail/’Til the bending end.”
Although there are tracks which impress at first listen?the mordant “Things I Miss The Most”, the enigmatically swinging “Green Book”, the mischievous “Lunch With Gina”, and the fatalistic title (and closing) track?there is nothing here which knocks you for six like “Gaslighting Abbie” or “Jack Of Speed”.
In its melodic sparseness and proclivity for the blues, Everything Must Go most resembles Donald Fagen’s 1993 solo album Kamakiriad; indeed, “Blues Beach” and the chorus line “Drop me off in Groovetime” from “Slang Of Ages” both sound like outtakes from that least compelling of all Steely Dan products. There’s a slight tiredness about the new album. It’s too laid back to grab the attention, which must scan closer for clues.
One of the standard fixtures of the Steely Dan method since 1974’s Pretzel Logic has been the use of endless line-ups of auxiliary musicians in search of the perfect realisation of every separate song. This has always worked beautifully, and it’s surprising to find that Everything Must Go uses the same basic pool of musicians for all nine tracks. Possibly this retreat from the benefits of internal rivalry has produced a comparative slackening in creative tension. Certainly the overall mood of the album is relaxed beyond the usual. An edge of fiery emphasis is missing.
That said, the prevailing standards of composition and performance remain high, while Fagen (left, above) and Walter Becker (right) convincingly handle most of the solos themselves. Perhaps one expects too much. Perhaps this one’s a slow burner. Perhaps, on the other hand, Everything Must Go lacks the last ounce of ambition. Comfortable business as usual on the Dan trail, the album feels like a stepping stone between more major statements. Compared to Two Against Nature, it lacks both variety and intensity of focus on the unusual. The downbeat ending comes effectively, but nothing spectacular enough has happened before it for the dying fall to register to the full.
“Is it over already?” is the somewhat disappointed response.
Steely Dan are too acute to make even a slightly duff album, so don’t run away with the idea that this one’s no good. Just prepare not to be totally floored this time round.