Friday, February 29, 2008

What a Beautiful World This Will Be...

... what a glorious time to be free

(from Donald Fagen's 'I.G.Y.')

It doesn't get much more optimistic than that, but Donald Fagen makes sure to sprinkle his pretty cupcake of a song with bittersweet irony. And there's more: a whole box filled with heavenly creations from a wizard of a baker with the perfect recipe for a timeless album that "tastes" as fresh as ever. Mmm.

According to Wikipedia, Fagen's 1982 release The Nightfly is "one of the first fully digital recordings of popular music." It is still used as an example of superb sound quality and in fact sounds as good on vinyl as it does in CD format - that is if the LP version hasn't been used as a funky coaster or frisbee.

It didn't hurt that Fagen hired a virtual Who's-Who of L.A.'s finest studio session players and had it mastered by Bob Ludwig, but many artists and producers employ the very best that money can buy in terms of musicians as well as production and post-production magicians and still come up with a product that, while technically perfect, rings false. So why is it that this album is pitch perfect in every way? Because not only is it ear candy in terms of production and arrangement, but it is also a deeply personal work with melodies and lyrics of a very high caliber.

The best songwriters are usually great story tellers whose lyrics read like short stories that draw the listener into the world of intriguing characters. Sometimes one of these characters is the songwriter's alter ego. Donald Fagen writes in a clever liner note that the songs on The Nightfly are about a young boy growing up in the 1950s, which essentially makes the work an autobiographical concept album, but he wisely leaves it up to the listener to figure out just how much is fiction. Less is usually more.

The soundscapes created for The Nightfly have the distinct trademark elements heard in several classic collaborations with Steely Dan partner Walter Becker, but on Fagen's first solo album the music functions as more than gorgeous backdrops to the lyrics - here each note and every word become one fully formed narrative; an aural tapestry.

It's said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" - a quote most often attributed to Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa. Whoever made the statement is right and no amount of writing can do true justice to great music, but if someone out there not already familiar with Fagen's masterpiece now has the wild lusty urge to get their sweaty paws on their very own copy of the album, I have not lived in vain.

Photo of sky by yours truly.