Much like Steely Dan’s unfairly maligned Gaucho locks the grooves of its hit predecessor, Aja, into a snide, sultry trance, Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos sounds like his last solo outing, Morph the Cat, might after a visit to the hypnotist. The album has a relentless, almost devious smoothness to it. The drum and bass tracks are presumably performed by musicians, but have such undisturbed momentum that they might as well be mechanical; anonymously pentatonic horn and guitar riffs achieve a similar, barely tonal repetitiousness. Key changes, meanwhile, are no less angular than those of Fagen’s other compositions, but there’s noticeably fewer of them. Melody is altogether negligible and almost ornamental against the strength of the album’s darkly danceable rhythms.
Fagen hasn’t forsaken his jazz acumen entirely; his signature mu chords, for instance, still abound in vibraphone and clavinet parts, especially in the funky opener “Slinky Thing.” There, however, the dissonance signifies cheap ominousness rather than contemplativeness, creating instant tension that subsequent harmonies quickly release. Such flourishes provide otherwise generic verses with murmurs of drama, and help fashion Sunken Condos into a modestly entertaining paradox: It’s an album built on monotony that still has a sense of narrative.
Fagen’s steady, soulful thumping has a practical motive: Rudimentary basslines are easy to sing along with, and this material was written to perform live alongside Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in the Dukes of September, Fagen’s current touring entourage. But the vocals are so clearly those of a blues enthusiast, and so free of Fagen’s usual east coast animus, that they redeem any oversimplified-sounding melody lines. Where he once paid homage to William Burroughs and Charlie Parker, he’s now saluting Albert King: On the alarmingly twelve-bar “Weather in My Head,” Fagen’s syncopated voice quotes “As the Years Go Passing By.” And while his adenoidal warbling never achieves the genuineness of any of Sunken Condo‘s other referents, his piquant timing makes up for the dearth of emotion. On a buzzing cover of Isaac Hayes’s “Out of the Ghetto,” Fagen’s choppy crooning even manages to upstage the Semitic saxophone scales, and his falsetto notes on the chorus of “Miss Marlene” are elongated to mellifluous, whimsical lengths. That he breaks out the wistful falsetto for “Miss Marlene,” too, is notable in as much as the song concerns either a co-ed bowling team, or a less wholesome pastime: “Can’t you hear the balls rumble?”
Steely Dan’s wit is often so cryptic that it feels threatening. Bemusing lines like “I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time,” from “Pretzel Logic,” only make sense within the moody, slippery context of their musical accompaniment. The album’s lyrics, however, are happily interpretable by comparison, and risible in surprisingly down-to-earth ways. “Memorabilia” speaks of “an island east of the Carolines” reduced to junk and “a photo of laughing Navy types,” which is probably Atlantis or a metaphor for Fagen’s below sea-level libido. And a sarcastic couplet in “Slinky Thing” says: “Today we were strolling by the reptile cage/I’m thinking that she needs somebody closer to her own age.” That Fagen drops a primitive symbol for immortality (the reptile) amid the “Hey Nineteen”-like scenario being described is goofy enough, but after the verse ends, swoony background singers call out for “more light, more light, more light.” Are they singing in the reptiles’ voices? Has their heat rock died, perhaps? These cheeky passages might be the closest Fagen has ever come to letting his audience in on his cruel jokes.