The calendar says that Gaucho, the last album of original material by Steely Dan, came out just over twenty years ago, but Two Against Nature suggests that it's really been about ten minutes. The same musical miscalculations that made the outfit's 1979 faux swan song so sonically vapid are very much present and accounted for.
Not that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have seen their talent dry up and lose its potency like that Baggie full of fine Colombian they forgot behind the couch. Becker's guitar lines are as snaky and sinuous as ever, and Fagen's words remain relentlessly literate, albeit in a notably '70s kinda way; most of them sound as if they were written in Don Henley's Malibu hot tub. The first song, "Gaslighting Abbie," suggests spiking "soothing herb tea" with "Deludin" (no, I don't know what the hell it is, but I betcha Don does), the title "Jack of Speed" is fairly self-explanatory, and during "Negative Girl," Fagen smokes and then stares into his coke while contemplating a femme who's "deliciously toxic." Just say yes.
The boys' insistence on doing the lyrical time warp again would be easier to overlook if their tunes had some edge. But the new material is slicker than the stuff Pat Riley uses to comb his hair. In the beginning, Becker and Fagen filtered their jazz jones through a prism of cynicism: Their version of Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" was interesting precisely because it mingled celebration with world-weariness. As time went on, though, their studio addiction caused their best instincts to curdle -- and by now, their attempts at stretching seem less like odes to the Duke than to Spyro Gyra. The arrangements of the title cut, "Janie Runaway" and "West of Hollywood," to name but three, are watery and unctuous, replete with electric piano-tinkling, fatuous changes, sax solos with all the bite of a sleeping octogenarian whose teeth are in a glass on his nightstand, and crooning by Fagen that calls to mind those singles-bar guys who still think it's cool to wear puka-shell necklaces and collared shirts open to the navel. Sorry, but you can't have this dance.
There are a few impressive moments here (like the narrative of "What a Shame About Me," a tale of a loser who's pathetically grateful for the offer of a pity lay) that serve as reminders of glories now long past. But for anyone not overwhelmed by nostalgia for guilty sex during the Ford administration is apt to be creeped out by Two Against Nature. Time marches on, and thank God for that.
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