I fear that if I start writing about Donald Fagen/Steely Dan here, I won't stop for days… But in order to extract this particular tune from my brain, I think I'll have to do some blog-therapy (otherwise known as 'the typing cure').
This song – which, just to compress the argument, is the most meticulous and moving post/pre-apocalypse pop song I've ever heard – is Fagen's The Great Pagoda of Funn (lyrics), from his recent Morph The Cat album. (And thanks to the neo-comm glories of current music culture, you can hear it streamed here on Spotify. Or you can buy it, if you're that way inclined. Go on! Play capitalism - it's a cool game!).
I'm under no illusions about why I generally love Fagen's work. For one thing, if your own deep musical conditioning is split three ways between post-be-bop jazz, organic 70's rock'n'soul, and classic Brill Building songwriting, then Dan/Fagen brings them all together for you perfectly. (You also have to trust a guy who says "my idea of a great gig is four guys on stage in cheap suits blowing away with their backs to the audience".) For another, beginning with the name – Steely Dan was a large mechanical phallus in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch – Fagen (and his writing partner Walter Becker) give you the nod that they are going to be extremely literate and ambitious in their lyrics.
And thirdly… well, I'm 45, and I'm pining for certain ultra-sophisticated experiences I once had in New York and Los Angeles in the 80's and 90's. And no-one does the ennui arising from East and West Coast big-city ultra-sophistication like Donald Fagen. Listening to that snarky, adenoidal whine, I am immediately returned to wise-guys, lounge-lizards and merciless conversationalists that I once knew, feared and sometimes loved, in streets called Melrose and Bleeker.
But this song, The Great Pagoda of Funn, actually gets under my emotional plates (not an experience actually encouraged in the poised, sometimes ruthless world of Fagen's lyrics). It's best seen in the context of Fagen's solo albums over the last two decades, which are a beguiling trilogy. The Nightfly in 1982 was a dreamy, synth-jazz vision of his young adulthood (yet with some sharp satire – 'New Frontier' was about making out in your father's bomb shelter at the bottom of the garden). 1994's Kamakiriad was a sharper, funkier SF fantasy – the usual tangle of implacably mysterious women and penthouse-meets-pavement shenanigans, set in some future-topolis that sounds like it was designed by Al Gore (cars powered by hydroponics, where "the frame was out of Glasgow… the tech is Balinese").
Yet go forward 12 years to Morph the Cat, and the mood is much darker. The cover artwork tells the story. On the Nightfly, Fagen's having fun pretending to be a DJ at the foot of Mt. Belzoni. On Kamakiriad, he's a pouting video projection in his techno-car. But on Morph the Cat, he's sitting morosely in what I assume is his New York apartment, the light falling on him from outside the window, which he seems unwilling to look through.
Yes, it's a post 9-11 record, very explicitly. And though many of the songs directly address the experience of living in the America of Homeland Security (state surveillance and coercion in "Mary Shut the Garden Door" and "Security Joan"; coping with a climate of fear in "Morph the Cat" and "The Night Belongs To Mona"), it's "The Great Pagoda of Funn" that's the artistic triumph for me.
Oh, it's a weary, weary song. It starts up with a compendium of Fagen's favourite musical moves – a boom-chick four-on-the-floor beat, with his usual Ellingtonian layerings of horns and chords – but the mood is very sombre, funereal. Over this stately procession comes Fagen's usual ironic squeak, but carried by a melody that's very close to the kind of elaborate construction you'd get from a Billy Strayhorn or Shirley Horn. We're deep in the shades of historic Manhattan here: Fagen's channelling the more elegant aspects of this city, as they sail through that apartment window.
But even though "summer's over, there's a strange new music in the street". And Fagen isn't alone in this room: he's secreted there with a loved one. They're trying to do the John Donne thing, make that "one little roome/an everywhere" – because outside, in the world after the fall of the Twin Towers, all is disordered and alienated in their beloved city. The citizens of Gotham are going through the motions of normality, staring and grinning "to help maintain the state we're in". In Fagen and his lover's eyrie, they "make up their own storyline" – but it's a precarious project. The effort required to keep this "house of light" illuminated is enormous: one careless word can unravel their Decameron against the darkness.
And what happens when that happens? It's at this point you know you're listening to a master songwriter/arranger. The song soars into a pristine modulated doo-wop: they've failed, the flame's gone out, and they're now in the world of
and severed heads
and pain and lies…
and dying stars
and dirty bombs…
You can barely hear the semantics of this, so lovingly wrapped in harmony and sheen are the vocals: it's a desperate beauty, a hipster wrapping his taste and sophistication around the very worst, aware of how doomed to failure his efforts will be. The chorus completes on chords that (I'm sure) are deliberately trite, and on a line ("Let's build a world together/in the Great Pagoda of Funn") which neatly combines sheer sentiment, and painfully self-conscious wackiness. Fagan and his love are holding themselves together with fantasies and caresses, in their bemused, enfeebled (and enfabled) state, however many stories up in their tall, ultimately indefensible Manhattan tower.
Around all this, of course, there is the usual Fagen-esque foliage of virtuosity - for some a vice, for me always a virtue. Soloists on guitar and trumpet get their chance to participate in the song's overall conversation, and their evident thoughtfulness and awareness of the themes they're playing to increases, for me, with every listen.
Nothing can be solved in a pop song - but a pop song can open up the world, can at least help us to feel how important the problems are. There are a few artists who try to do that with their music (Costello, Waits, Cohen, Mitchell, Prince, Radiohead): they're the ones I return to, time after time, for sustenance in murky times. And Fagen sits on the top of the pile, like a dyspeptic, Pynchon-reading monarch. A play-ethicist supreme.