In a culture as steeped in reinvention as rock & roll, the ability to pick up exactly where you left off will never be considered a primary virtue. But makeovers be damned: Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature resumes action almost precisely where the duo’s previous studio album, Gaucho, petered out back in 1980. The only dead giveaway that these aren’t in fact outtakes plucked from those vintage sessions is a reference in ”What a Shame About Me” to ”CDs,” which were just another couple of letters in the alphabet when Gaucho was a turntable ubiquity.
Nature is a preternatural enough stylistic reprise that it won’t inspire a whole lot of conversions. If you already hate Steely Dan, you’ll view Donald Fagen and Walter Becker as regular Rip van Winkles, still as unconscionably slick as the day they dozed off. But those of us predisposed to appreciate their subversive high standards might spin a more flattering myth as the model for their reemergence: Brigadoon. Like Gene Kelly itching to ditch the cocktail circuit for a roll in the haze with out-of-the-past lassie Cyd Charisse, we might just want to jump into the disc and let the duo take us away from all this teen choreography. Even if their particular Shangri-la is peopled by perverts, creeps, miscreants, and clavinets.
The core elements are unchanged: white-hot chops, black humor, and a flair for the cryptic. Your guess about what exactly ”Gaslighting Abbie” involves is as good as ours, though we can assume it’s something decadent, given the sordid characters who populate the more comprehensible numbers. The hilarious ”Janie Runaway” describes a romance even more May/December than the one in ”Hey Nineteen,” its sugar daddy serenading a now decidedly underage muse. (”Who has a friend named Melanie/Who’s not afraid to try new things/Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain/Possibly you, Janie Runaway!” sings Fagen, against such a pleasant light-jazz lilt, you croon along and cringe simultaneously.) And if you liked ”Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” you’ll love ”Cousin Dupree,” their woeful tale of unrequited intra-familial lust.
Becker and Fagen don’t play their lotharios and losers strictly for laughs. Nature has honest pathos, too, though you have to hunt for it amid the arcane gags and margarita-ready jazz riffs. ”What a Shame…” begins as comedy about an aging slacker who’s the only guy from his NYU class who didn’t strike gold. But when a more successful former paramour suggests a hotel tryst, the shamed protagonist nixes the seduction, explaining ”You’re talking to a ghost.” More ambiguous narratives like ”Almost Gothic” and ”Negative Girl” ply the highs and lows of sexual obsession for something more than yuks.
Nature isn’t an instant classic on the level of the Katy Lied/Royal Scam/Aja triumvirate. With Becker now playing virtually all the guitar — and he’s no slouch at it — you’ll at some point miss the world-class soloing their session guys used to provide. But their ensemble sound remains sharp and inimitable. If the album’s four-year making is hard evidence of anal retention, there’s more than sufficient funk even in tunes you know were as carefully constructed as a Swiss watch.
For proof their prime isn’t past, skip to the closing ”West of Hollywood,” this album’s eight-minute-plus masterpiece. ”I’m way deep into nothing special,” repeats Fagen, describing a SoCal black hole of addictive pleasure and romantic despair. The fever-pitched music matches the lyric’s abyss-mal uncertainty, throwing out a succession of the weirdest key changes you’ve ever heard on a pop record, its roller-coaster twists topped off by a Chris Potter sax solo so good you’ll keep checking the LED display in hopes it isn’t nearly over. The Cuervo Gold, fine Colombian, and other abusable substances of Steely Dan’s ’70s heyday may all be distant history. But that final number especially is proof that, even now, you can buy a thrill. A