At a time when sounding a bit rough around the edges is not a bad thing there are still some artists who are not swayed by changes in style, none more so than Donald Fagen. One half of Steely Dan, he has been making the same classy brand of jazzy pop for over 30 years and these are values not forgotten on his latest solo effort, Morph The Cat.
Only the 58 year old’s third solo album in over two decades, the release has the high production standards you would expect, especially as perfectionist Fagen was at the controls himself.
Indeed, if you are looking for surprises then you won’t find many. As well as stellar production, another Fagen trademark is his willingness, even necessity, for songs to run their natural course. If this means a sax solo takes a tune in a different direction, moving it over six or seven minutes, then so be it.
There is not much space in pop music these days for jazz solos – indeed they may normally be ridiculed – however, Fagen’s mandate is ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. Hence they are here in abundance and pulled off with aplomb by a stellar cast including such gifted jazz musicians as saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and guitarist Wayne Krantz, who are all left to do their thang.
Chilled title track Morph The Cat includes all this sublime musicianship, with its cool and jazzy feel, starting a trend which continues throughout the album. The similarity of each song is something you could criticise Fagen for if you had not heard his previous work, however while the feel may not alter dramatically, the stories in the songs do.
According to Fagen, the album represents the final part in a solo trilogy. Where 1982’s The Nightfly and Kamakiriad from 1993 were about youth and middle age, Morph The Cat signifies death.
Always a clever lyricist, Fagen weaves a number of encounters with the grim reaper into Brite Nitegown. Verses about sickness, murder and drugs are contained in one of the most upbeat tempo songs on the album, with its great groove and wah wah guitars, as he warns “you can’t fight the feller in the bright nightgown”.
There are generally grim connotations found within many of the songs. A tale of besotted lovers, The Great Pagoda Of Funn, has the words “poisoned skies and severed heads” darkening the outlook, while The Night Belongs To Mona refers to 9/11. Scarred by “the fire downtown”, the central character in the song is scared to go out, instead staying inside her Manhattan apartment playing music all day and “feeling pretty”.
There is a similarly dark feel about Mary Shut The Garden Door, as Fagen sings “they came in under the radar” about an alien invasion. Eerie keyboards heighten the tension as government agents force Mary into being a prisoner in her own home.
The message Fagen appears to be delivering on the songs about Mary and Mona is that it’s a big bad world out there and you’re better off staying inside where it’s safe and warm. Even the album cover casts a lonesome Fagen sitting on his own next to a window as if he were that frightened recluse post-9/11 himself.
There are more positive themes to be found as well, such as the thrill of getting frisked by an airport security guard described during the sassy Security Joan, while Fagen receives advice from the ghost of Ray Charles in What I Do.
H Gang, meanwhile, offers up the most infectious song on the album – a very melodic track which recalls classic Steely Dan. And the links with the past do not end there. A twist is served up right at the end with the final notes borrowed from Fagen’s first solo hit, I.G.Y., rounding off his personal trilogy with the touch of class you would expect.