I remember interviewing Donald Fagen when the Steely Dan man's last album, "Morph the Cat," came out six years ago. I'd wanted to talk to him for years, but this was the first time. After all, his music was part of my personal soundtrack ever since I was a freshman in high school.
We discussed songs on that album and the Dan's last one, 2003's "Everything Must Go," and I was surprised how open the once seemingly secretive singer and keyboardist was about lyrics that were often cryptic and puzzling.
I don't remember exactly what he said, but he sounded genuinely flummoxed, didn't think he had to or that anyone cared.
Well, of course they do. Fagen has been part of Steely Dan for the better part of 40 years now, a group — duo, really — that had massive success in the '70s, became studio rats, broke up and, in the intervening 12 years, discovered their fans had grown even more devoted, and hungry for more.
Steely Dan started out as a pop-rock band, an ever-changing cast of musicians that revolved around Fagen and cofounder Walter Becker, who played bass and guitar. They had radio hits right ouf of the box, including "Do It Again," "Dirty Work," "Reelin' in the Years," "My Old School" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" during their touring days in the first half of the 1970s (I saw them open for Sha Na Na at the Coliseum in 1973).
Like the Beatles, Fagen and Becker became studio hermits after that, crafting the ultra-slick masterpiece "Aja" after giving up the road (they returned, sluggishly, in 1993 but got much better after that). Ever since then, anything Fagen and Becker recorded, together or solo, has had the meticulous laidback sheen of a '50s jazz record, which probably was the idea.
That's certainly true of Fagen's new solo album, "Sunken Condos," his fourth overall and first since forming the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue with Boz Scaggs and former SD backup singer Michael McDonald. The R&B affection they share carries over onto "Sunken Condos," a nine-song collection of R&B- and funk-inflected jazz-pop that includes a tasty cover of Isaac Hayes' overlooked "Out of the Ghetto."
Fagen is backed by several members of the Dan's crack touring band, including trumpeter Michael Leonhart, who coproduced it with the Donald. The playing is exquisite throughout, the arrangements as precise and tight as expected from a guy who helped perfect this kind of cool antithetical pop.
In a perfect world, a song like "I'm Not the Same Without You," about a guy struggling to recover from a breakup, would be a hit single. In fact, it is in Japan, but its best shot here is Rhapsody, Spotify or public radio. It's a jaunty jazz-rocker, a fitting contrast to the tragic narrative that unfolds.
The album's glassy surface belies a lyrical turbulence that, coupled with Fagen's recent R&B excursion, allows the 64-year-old and his assembled musicians to cut loose here and there, relatively speaking. "Weather in My Head," one of the most personal songs here, is set to an appropriately bluesy backdrop as the doomed narrator pleads: "They may fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what's to be done/About the weather in my head?"
Ace guitar man Jon Herington rips off one of the better blues guitar solos I've heard in a long time, just to drive home the point, and Fagen lets him wail on until he's squeezed it all out. Fagen follows it with Hayes' "Out of the Ghetto," the lone cover, which allows the band to play a kind of dignified funk.
There's always been a vulnerability to many of Fagen's narratives, and on "Sunken Condos" he confesses concerns about the advancing years. "Slinky Thing" opens the album with a kind of marijuana-induced mellow clavinet funk line and a story about an older guy, a younger woman and her peers who caution the old man he'd better "hold on to that slinky thing."
"The New Breed" combines a hushed organ line, clicking funk guitars and a subtle brass arrangement with a lyric about a guy who both despises and laments a love interest's affections for a young, strong dotcom kind of guy. "I guess I'll get along somehow," he grumbles.
Other songs seem to draw from the current cultural climate. The woman in "Memorabilia" could be a love terrorist. The guy in "Good Stuff" is a hitman, but sounds like he could be hedge fund manager when he talks about liquidating.
Market concerns don't seem to be a problem for Fagen or Steely Dan. They've managed to do what they do, make it sound fresh and even reinvigorate it without knowing or caring what Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber are up to. While the title "Sunken Condos" suggests a kind of sinking feeling that comes with aging in a young man's world, Fagen sounds like he's on top of his game.