Jeff Gordinier
March 03, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

The two guys from Steely Dan are staring at a vegetarian menu. They look like they’ve just been handed a medical textbook written in Urdu.

”I wonder what Zen ravioli is,” Donald Fagen muses.

”It’s ravioli with nothing inside,” quips Walter Becker.

There is a pause.

”I’ll have the Zen ravioli,” says Fagen.

Modest as it may appear, this wry little exchange — the two brains behind Steely Dan sitting together, making deadpan observations, weaving them into a kind of cosmic, smart-ass haiku — symbolizes a landmark moment in pop history: They’re here to promote Two Against Nature. A new album.

Shockingly, Steely Dan’s last album of new music came out nearly 20 years ago. When Gaucho made its velvet-slipper pas de deux onto the pop charts in 1980, Christina Aguilera had about a month left in her mother’s womb, Ronald Reagan had just trounced Jimmy Carter at the polls, and MTV didn’t exist. For two decades Becker and Fagen have delivered sporadic hors d’oeuvres to the pop buffet — Fagen’s The Nightfly in 1982 and Kamakiriad in 1993, Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994, a live album in 1995 — but the famished Steely Dan fan has mostly been forced to subsist on Zen ravioli. Put it this way: That barely legal ditz that Fagen sang about in ”Hey Nineteen”? She’s nearing 40.

And as for those mysterious gaps, Fagen and Becker aren’t exactly rushing to fill them in. ”Do you have a copy of the new bio time line?” Fagen asks.

Uh-huh. The one that gives the following whereabouts for 1982: After a period of dissolution on the fringes of the Hamburger Werkstatter group, B & F abandon symbolist thought-poetry and begin experimenting with Siamese erotic pottery.

”That’s it,” says Becker. ”That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”

For anybody familiar with Steely Dan’s brand of subversive pop, it should come as no surprise that their first radio single in 19 years, ”Cousin Dupree,” pushes the kinky subtext of ”Hey Nineteen” a few extra erogenous zones into left field. (”Cousin Dupree” is an infectious, airwave-friendly ditty about incest.) What is weird is that Two Against Nature sounds precisely like the logical follow-up to Gaucho — as if the duo’s suave, spidery web of pop, fuzak, and funk got preserved in a block of Jurassic amber for 20 years. Nature hits stores on Feb. 29 — the extra day added for leap year. Maybe they should’ve called it Two Against Time.

”We have a common vision of what we’re trying to do,” says Becker, explaining how Steely Dan still comes up with…that sound. ”It’s just very easy for us to agree on a musical goal and articulate it.”

”Because we’ve been together so long,” says Fagen, ”we have a code, a shorthand that makes it very easy.”

Exactly what Steely Dan’s trying to do has always been a subject of fascination and confusion. Now 50 and 52, respectively, Becker and Fagen met amid the shaggy-hippie bedlam of upstate New York’s Bard College in the 1960s; they would later try to make money writing tunes for the Brill Building, Manhattan’s top melody factory. Both experiences spawned the two-headed beast known as Steely Dan. Sure, Fagen and Becker orchestrated some of the most gossamer-gorgeous hits in radio history — ”Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” ”Reelin’ in the Years,” ”Josie,” ”Deacon Blues” — but seething underneath that sumptuous, console-shiny surface was a tricky lyrical morass of sarcasm, oblique sex and drug references, and beatnik riddles. ”That was always frustrating for everyone — how few clues they would drop,” says fan Nash Kato, the ex-Urge Overkill frontman. ”They were so cryptic, it was almost like a scavenger hunt.” The very name Steely Dan comes from the novel Naked Lunch. It refers to a dildo.

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