Normalcy can be the most dangerous trap of all -- seductive because it has its uses. A good conman needs to act normal; a counterfeit $20 bill had better simulate legal tender. When the conman starts to believe his own act, though, he's in trouble. Ant that bogus twenty may be a master of engraving, but it's only good for what money can buy.
Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, master conmen, find their way into all the loopholes that the pop song form can offer. Their object: "to crawl like a viper through these suburban streets." They've already pulled off innumerable musical capers: melodized utterly bizarre chord progressions, diddled with preconceived rhythms, devised lyrics as ambiguous as Rorschach blots. And it all sounds smooth.
That kind of con takes planning to the split second. So Steely Dan shut out all inderminancy at the studio door. No accidents can happen there. (Accusing them of sounding "sterile," as some have, misses the point -- you might as well accuse the Stones of using too much guitar.) You can be sure that Becker and Fagen mapped out every detail of "Aja" to their own inscrutable specifications.
Don't let anyone tell you that "Aja" is Steely Dan's "jazz album." The cuts are longer than usual, and soloists are credited, but the only reasonable jazz analogue is big-band swing (listen to "Peg" and "Home At Last"), not the bebop so dear to the Dan's lyricists. Vocal and ensemble sections balance solos in exact formal proportions -- the structure is narrative, not discursive.
"Aja" edges closer to mainstream pop than Steely Dan have recently cared to go. They're so far removed from any competition that perhaps their only amusement comes from outdoing themselves. Having outflanked every musical rule they've ever met, Becker and Fagen, supremely cool, now try to maintain their pre-eminence with one hand tied behind their back. Cavalierly, "Aja" sacrifices a bit of Steely Dan's usual harmonic mobility -- they uses riffs instead of serpentine melodies -- while the listener hardly notices. These rock Houdinis slip out of every restraint.
Last year's "The Royal Scam" eschewed any blues-derived tunes, which had been prominent on earlier Dan LPs. "Aja" makes up for the omission; of seven songs on the album, "Josie," "Peg," "Black Cow" and, to a lesser extent, "Home At Last" and "I Got The News" rely on static, blues-inflected verses.
Cutting down on harmonic variety encourages you to listen to rhythm, which may be just what Steely Dan had in mind. There's a liner credit for "Hemiolas, Hockets, Maneries of Garlandia, etc." -- three medieval rhythmic devices that Steely Dan actually use. They also get exquisite, interactive drumming (a rare thing on studio rock records) from Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, Ed Greene and Bernard Purdie, and constantly varied bass lines from Chuck Rainey. Listen, also, to Larry Carlton's sneaky rhythm fills on "Home At Last." But beware of creeping normalcy: "Aja" is the first Dan album since their debut to start on a solid downbeat.
Just to stay paradoxical, the lyrics wax restlessly even as Becker and Fagen deliberately restrain themselves. "Josie," a tribute to a troublemaker, is a blue with extra chords breaking into the tune just as the narrator describes Josie breaking rules -- a neat form/content match.
The old Dan sneer has been toned way down on "Aja." Every lyric uses a sympathetic first-person viewpoint. Believe it or not, there are at least three, uh, love songs barely twisted at all by Dan standards. The guy in "Black Cow" fights back tears when he glimpses his ex at "Rudy's" ("I can't cry anymore while you run around"); "Peg's" narrator, surrounded by her photo image, vows he can love her better than any camera; "I Got The News" is a tense gangland romance. Are Becker and Fagen mellowing, or just learning to counterfeit new emotions?
"Deacon Blues" offers a wildly ambivalent answer. A romantic pessimist's vision of the jazz life (to "cross that fine line," learn saxophone, "die behind the wheel"), it could be Steely Dan's most heartfelt lyric, set to a delicate, sighing tune. The arrangement, though, is enervatingly conventional; it's disheartening to hear Fagen sing "I'll be what I want to be" over an MOR cushion.
There's more streetwise jazz savvy in "I Got The News," a cousin of Royal Scam's terse "Green Earrings." The lyrics are a telegraph transmitted by dits and dahs of choke-chorded piano and brass-knuckled drumming; the structure, a jumpily asymmetrical assemblage of riffs sorted into a verse and three interconnected bridges.
Logically enough, "Aja's" other masterpiece is its title cut, which blends the album's two obsessions -- love and the compulsion to escape -- and probes the undertones of its own lilting melody. Here's the scenario: The speaker is in some asylum, "up on the hill." He escapes for a tryst with his lover ("double helix in the sky tonight"), then is apprehended and returned to the hill. Simple, circular ... a dreamy guitar interweave rambles toward the verses, light and unconcerned until our man reaches the outside world. Becker's guitar solo (interrupted by a police whistle) and Wayne Shorter's foreboding sax break are orchestrated by a continuously toughening riff while Steve Gadd drums retribution from below. When we end up on the hill again, Fagen's synthesizers cloud the mind as Gadd flails. In brilliant cinematic fashion, the solos advance the action, and we reach the final verse realizing that the lilt masks darker forces.
Lyric fragments from earlier Steely Dan songs float through "Aja": "outrageous," "change your name," "a world of my own." Feeling suddenly claustrophobic in pop, perhaps, Steely Dan are recharging their identity, taking a quick look back before they embark on a new course: the conquest of expanded song form. In the light of "Aja's" finest moments, I'd say no band is better suited for the attempt.