What makes great music great? The late Clash singer Joe Strummer once offered a theory about what doesn't: ''It ain't about playing the right f---ing chord, for a start,'' quoth Saint Joe, making the point that passion trumps technical perfection. He was right, of course, but that doesn't mean that every artist obsessed with correct chords is a soulless automaton. Case in point: Donald Fagen, the singing, keyboard-playing half of the two-man autocracy known as Steely Dan.
Fagen has just released Morph the Cat, his third solo album in 24 years. With its precisely calibrated funk grooves, exquisitely tasteful playing, and general air of blissed-out languor, Morph is firmly in the smoothed-out tradition of latter-day Dan discs like Gaucho. In short, anyone hoping that Fagen might throw some session work to Elliott Randall (the undersung guitarist who played that rousing solo on the 1973 hit ''Reeling in the Years'') will be disappointed. As usual, the ax work here is more indebted to George Benson than Jimi Hendrix. Even a harmonica solo on the Ray Charles homage ''What I Do'' sounds like it could have been generated via synthesizer.
Yet Fagen fans even those who prefer the grittier, more rockin' early Dan material have long inured themselves to his unrepentant jazzbo tendencies. We put up with them largely because the marriage of his mordantly acute lyrics and wry, rubbery vocals is so insidiously compelling. Fagen's songs, populated with doomed idealists, counterculture casualties, desperate lovers, and hapless neurotics, have been likened to mini-novels, and this latest batch introduces a handful of new oddballs to his gallery of beautiful losers. Meet Denise, the ex-jailbird who goes on to front a semi-legendary rock band; Mona, the isolated depressive who ventures from her Manhattan high-rise ''only for bare necessities''; and the nameless traveling man who finds love at an airport security checkpoint.
Our man has said the album's subtext is death (''the fella in the Brite Nitegown,'' as ''Brite Nitegown'' puts it), which gives Fagen ample opportunity to work his old trick of coating downbeat messages in shimmering, expansive music. If Morph offers no sonic surprises, it remains a solid effort likely to be welcomed by devotees. Still, all those beautifully executed sax solos make me wonder: If Kenny G's albums featured clever, literate lyrics, would hipsters hold him in higher regard?