By Rachel Brown
In the 1970’s rock n’ roll, disco, and AM Gold one-hit-wonders ruled the airwaves. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Queen topped the charts right alongside the BeeGees, America, and Elton John. The multi-dimensional Steely Dan, however, was not limited to merely one genre. Though classified as rock in most music venues, the smooth vibes of dynamic duo Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sweep a wide range of categories from jazz to pop, and their crowning achievement, Aja, which veered away from standard rock chords to make way for jazzier phrases, is the clearest example of the band’s musical diversity and authority.
Released in 1977, Aja ended a six-year streak of annual releases for the Dan. Their next album, Gaucho, wasn’t released until the early 80’s. The group exploded onto the music scene in 1972 with Can’t Buy a Thrill, which featured the iconic hit “Reelin’ in the Years”; however, their sound was far from refined. It wasn’t until the mid-70’s that the sound most recognized as Steely Dan’s was perfected, resulting in the musically tight and lyrically magnificent Aja. In fact, their previous repertoire could be considered a prelude to this album, though each preceding record certainly offers its own selection of entertainment.
The record opens with “Black Cow,” a delightfully jazzy refrain with a level of sophistication that few bands attain. Donald Fagen’s lyrics are sharp and served up on a languid melody so sensually smooth that one hardly grasps the true meaning behind them. This subtle combination of sexuality and cynicism pervades throughout the entirety of the album in tunes like “Deacon Blues” and “Home at Last”. The eight-minute title track, though still velvety as cream, paints a picture much gentler and less biting, supplementing a lyrical bridge with an instrumental one that climaxes in a stupendous, syncopated drum riff.
Fagen rarely writes music that exists simply for the fun of it. Every song is crafted to perfection, both melodically and lyrically. However, the peppy “Peg”, one of the band’s greatest songs, manages to break his rather obvious rule of pessimism while still meeting Steely Dan standards. Still, there is often an unsung counterpart to every hit, and the widely overlooked gem “I Got The News” is no exception, meshing a variety of melodies into one zesty piece. The album concludes with its grand finale “Josie”, which comes as close as Aja gets to rock n’ roll. The sax and trumpet drift to the background to make way for an electric guitar, simultaneously heralding Josie back to the neighborhood while kissing Aja goodbye.
Steely Dan set the bar for sophisticated rockers the world over, proving that there’s more to popular music than power chords or derivative love songs. Style, precision, and grace must also be present to produce the harmonies found among the eclectic collection of Fagen and Becker. However, though they mainly appeal to a more educated crowd, the Dan was not above cranking out a rock n’ roll classic that offers something for everyone. Whether you listen to it for the music, the lyrics, or both, listen to Aja in its entirety. It’s a trip that’s worth taking.