Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Nightfly

In a professional career that has spanned the better part of four decades, ‘The Nightfly’ remains Donald Fagen’s most accomplished work, even after taking into consideration those seminal jazz-rock albums he did in his time with the pioneering Steely Dan. While he chose to dabble in wickedly wry anecdotes with Steely Dan, churning out sardonic songs about vagabonds, runaways and other lowlifes, Fagen opted for a more personal focus when he launched his solo jaunt with ‘The Nightfly’ in 1982. Fagen narrated in intensely vivid detail his childhood during the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, describing the fantasies he had while growing up and his hopes for the future. These lyrical reminiscences were matched with some of the most polished, refined, jazz-inflected pop ever committed to record, making for a wonderfully evocative album that had no sonic precedent.

Given its historical significance in Fagen’s discography, its original eight-song track listing does merit a run-through again. The brightly coloured, optimistic ‘I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)’ provides a faultless start to the proceedings, a nostalgic tribute to the titular scientific event of 1958, marked by its pleasantly familiar, if slightly overused introductory horn-section melody. The impossibly classy ‘Green Flower Street’ is a wistful look back at Fagen’s childhood neighbourhood, while ‘Maxine’ is a touching piano-ballad paean to a high-school crush.

Meanwhile, a positively swinging reading of the Drifters’ ‘Ruby Baby’ displays Fagen’s hitherto hidden doo-wop proclivities. The propulsive, seven-minute ‘New Frontier’ is an atmospheric, early-60s slice-of-life narrative, driven along by an insouciant post-bop cadence and a distinctive four-note piano riff (the animated, era-specific promo for the song is included in this package). Meanwhile, the title track is an urbane smooth-jazz nugget that features Fagen at his storytelling best, a scene-setting tale of an all-night radio show and its charismatic disc jockey.

The album’s home run is marked by two remarkable cuts: the first one, ‘The Goodbye Look’, is a bouncy calypso groover about the last days of the Batista regime in Cuba, and the advent of the Cuban Revolution. The closing ‘Walk Between Raindrops’ is a dynamic, brisk show tune that sounds like an outtake from some ancient, long-forgotten Broadway musical.

Thanks to the proficient and dexterous execution in both production and performance, ‘The Nightfly’, to utilise an old cliché, has truly stood the test of time. Never has Fagen been more artistically purposeful or sounded more sonically vital than on here, and the overall sense that ‘The Nightfly’ imparts is that of a professional performer at the height of his powers. Immaculate, flawless and sophisticated, ‘The Nightfly’ remains one of the most evocative and stylish recordings of 20th century rock. A stellar example of Fagen’s enduring craftsmanship, and still the high point of his long career.


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