Donald Fagen’s 1982 album The Nightfly is a delightfully perfect album. It’s admittedly odd that I like this record because I also love Dylan’s error-ridden Desire and The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. I love Who’s Next and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I consider The Black Crowes’ Southern Harmony and Musical Companion to be as perfect a record as The Nightfly, for very similar reasons. They are both a reflection of singular musical purpose, a palpable exercise in impassioned importance in their own unique way.
It is easy to dismiss a record like The Nightfly as “slick” and “soulless.” However, what I hear when I listen to this record is actually pure soul. How much more soulful can you get than a musician obsessively creating a piece of work that is built like a perfect architectural structure, made to stand for decades to come? How come we accept and often demand perfection in architecture but almost beg for imperfection in music to bolster its authenticity? Building music in the form of an album is a lot like building a structure; at least it used to be.
This album falls in that large domain we know as the “classic” period of popular music during which budgets grew to gargantuan proportions and careers were nurtured. This era has given us such a wonderful wide swath of material in which to analyze and enjoy. Depending on the goals of the musician and associated business partners, an album was usually an entity that demanded consideration to a concept of some sort, however loose that was. At the very minimum there was an ambition of uniformity, whether that be in sound, style, or lyrical themes. The Nightfly is interesting in that it stands as a barometer to measure the influence of Walter Becker on the duo’s ‘70s Steely Dan output. We can hear the relative absence of cutting wit and dark-hued themes. In its place is more joy; we hear a harkening back to the idealism of the ‘50s (“Maxine”) as well as an exciting projection onto the future (“I.G.Y”). In the title track we meet a lonely Louisiana jazz DJ who talks to his late night audience while intimating that his best years are a memory. The melancholy nature of this lyric is obscured, however, by a tight groove and upbeat melody. Setting aside the perceptive and insightful lyrics, what makes The Nightfly stand out are the performances and ensuing mix. Yes the record is overdubbed like crazy. However, this is even more impressive due to the tightness of the arrangements and fluid nature of the songs.
The track listing is an endless well of treasures that keeps giving and giving on repeated plays. The album is addictive in this way. You can listen to just the bass on this record over and over and never be bored. The guitar work is similarly intriguing, consisting mostly as clean colours in flourishes and fills. The keyboards are ever-present and full of richness and assured presence. The subject of drums is a controversial one on this record. Some of the tracks are actually a machine dubbed “Wendel.” Created by Steely Dan producer Roger Nichols, it is purported to be the first drum sampler of its kind. Nichols built it in response to Fagen’s obsession with the perfect drum take. Honestly it’s hard for me to discern which tracks are real takes and which ones are Wendel, and this is because Fagen’s incorporation of all technology is tasteful and true to excellence.
I don’t necessarily feel a high level of frustration when I hear criticism of “slick music” such as the output of Fagen and company, but I have to stress that the goal of perfection does not make any music less genuine or vital. Some of what we have come to immortalize in popular music is just plain sloppy but otherwise redeemed by a genius lyric or some other crucial factor (ie. Desire). I’ve heard studio musicians say that there is a real joy in rehearsing something to the point that you have it down to a science because then you can truly have fun and explore musically after having done the hard work. This is a mature and measured take on creating music. There is ironically a freedom in striving for exactness. You can truly loosen up when you’re that tight. And that’s what I hear on The Nightfly and the Steely Dan recordings. We find the soul in the steadfast purpose of excellence.