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Steely Dan retreats to 1980

Oldies radio aside, Ty Burr wonders what Becker and Fagan were aiming for on their new release

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Steely Dan retreats to 1980

Like a mellow, jazz-bo Frankenstein monster, it shambles out of the swamp of Baby Boomer Lite-FM nostalgia, brandishing tasty horn charts and plinging guitar solos, seemingly none the worse for having been frozen in ice for two decades, still devoid of a pulse yet somehow shuffling onwards…

It’s the new Steely Dan album, and it’s creeping me out, big time.

Elsewhere, fans are yippie-ki-yaying with delight. Thanks to prerelease orders, ”Two Against Nature” landed on Amazon.com’s top-selling CD charts even before it hit the stores. The first single, ”Cousin Dupree,” is all over the radio. This magazine gave it a fulsome lead review last week, crowning the album with an A.

What, exactly, are people finding here, besides their adolescence recalled in uncanny verisimilitude? I listen to ”Two Against Nature” and, aside from a handful of tracks (the frisky bossa beat of the title cut, the mournful groove of ”Jack of Speed”) I hear the same dead-end, mind-numbing ski-lounge music that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had boxed themselves into a corner with when last we heard from them, in 1980 with the bloodless ”Gaucho”.

Understand, I was looking forward to this reunion as much as anyone, since I held out hopes that the Dan might return to the nastily beautiful pop songcraft that marked their first four albums. As is my Boomer prerogative to search among my CD collection for the joys of youth (don’t worry, Blink 182 fans, you’ll do this someday, and your kids won’t understand either), I often find myself cueing up albums like ”Pretzel Logic” or ”Countdown to Ecstasy,” luxuriating in the tart, twisted sonic pleasures of such songs as ”Barrytown,” ”Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and ”Bodhisattva” — songs that hew to the short/fast economy of pop while mugging Top 40 conventions with a switchblade. No, it wasn’t punk — that would come later. But it was smart and hip and beguilingly sure of itself.

When Becker and Fagen retreated behind a wall of studio perfectionism in the late ’70s, though, I tuned out. ”Aja” had its share of glories and then some, but it was too easily co-opted as supermarket Muzak. ”Gaucho,” I felt, was formulaic dreck, and I hated it more for the fact that I couldn’t get the chorus of ”Babylon Sisters” out of my head for years (it’s still there, actually). The finest example of Steely Dan’s new mellowness, ironically, was Fagen’s 1982 solo album ”The Nightfly,” a flawless paean to Fagen’s teenage years that matters because — surprise — it’s ABOUT something.

The duo’s occasional solo work since then has not been without interest, but this reunion is clearly the Main Event. And I suppose the fact that it picks up exactly where ”Gaucho” left off will make a lot of people very happy. Isn’t this why Classic Rock stations exist in the first place? To preserve an aging generation’s wild times in amber? And is there anything really wrong with that? We live our lives in the rude present; what’s so bad about touching the music of our past as if it were a talisman?

Nothing, really. We take our sustenance where we find it. It’s just that the painstaking reconstruction of previous pleasures that is ”Two Against Nature” is one stale pop-tart to this listener. I’m sure it’s the album that Becker and Fagen wanted to make, and good for them. It’s not really one I want to hear. For music that addresses the here and now, I’ll stick with, I dunno, Radiohead and Macy Gray and Lucinda Williams and DJ Sasha. And for a good wallow in nostalgia, I’ll guess I’ll have to keep cueing up ”Pretzel Logic.”