In Donald Fagen’s weird, irony-laden universe, time pretty much stands still. When his parent group Steely Dan returned with Two Against Nature in 2000, after a 20-year hiatus, it sounded as if they had released some long held back sessions from the early 1980s. Fagen has been known to take 10 years or more between solo albums, so it’s refreshing that Sunken Condos has arrived with relative haste after 2006’s Morph The Cat.
Unsurprisingly, Sunken Condos presents a narrative of musical continuity. The pristine production, extended harmonies, infectious melodic lines and sophisticated horn and vocal arrangements will be satisfyingly familiar to longstanding Fagen followers. Preview single I’m Not The Same Without You at least added a disco flourish to what has now become an oddly comforting sound world, but it still seems as if Fagen has made few concessions to modern musical approaches or sonic developments.
There is, therefore, a valid argument that Fagen has remained somewhat static over at least 30 years. The counter argument to this is clear enough though – just exactly where else could Fagen go when his music achieved such heights of crystalline perfection on his debut solo album The Nightfly back in 1982? Simply producing more material anywhere near that extraordinary pitch of nuance and detail would be impressive enough. This has largely been the story of his sporadic solo career to date. Nothing has quite repeated The Nightfly’s supreme brilliance – but every statement he makes, no matter how familiar it sounds, is always a welcome surprise.
In spite of a title straight out of American pulp science fiction, Sunken Condos does not share the conceptual focus of its predecessors, albums which have now been retrospectively combined as The Nightfly Trilogy. It’s much more a loose collection of well crafted songs and, despite the characteristic precision in the execution, this feels like Fagen’s most relaxed music for some time. His great skill has always been to make incredibly complex songs, often with unusual chord progressions, feel very much like great pop music. With its spare, authoritative clavinet riff and memorable hooks, the opener Slinky Thing immediately traverses familiar territory, whilst the brilliant, bluesy Weather In My Head presents just one of many first rate choruses.
Fagen’s voice may have lost a fraction of its range – but he was never a conventionally gifted singer. Steely Dan initially relied upon other vocalists before Fagen made a virtue of his nasal snarl, in the end the perfect vehicle for his wry, detached and sardonic narratives. Once again on Sunken Condos, he sounds like he relishes his own words, clearly an important factor when Fagen is a musician who could easily have specialised in instrumental music. In spite of this though, there is a sense of the words having been pared down and standardised. It is the odd moment of weird and wonderful genius that stands out, rather than complete stories. The finest story song here might be the surprisingly faithful take on Isaac Hayes‘ Out Of The Ghetto.
Still, if we accept that this is a more prosaic, conventional world than that of Kamakiriad or even Morph The Cat, Sunken Condos works as a collection of likeable, loosely connected songs that do not seem to be striving too hard for greatness. For all Fagen’s obsession with precision, this still feels like a remarkably relaxed, quietly confident album – sleek, urbane and sophisticated.