ALBUMS / New Age in middle age: Andy Gill contemplates the astral ponderings of Donald Fagen

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(Reprise 9362-45230-2)

ELEVEN years between albums is excessive, even by living-legend standards. For some pop performers, that's time enough to get discovered, be the next big thing, reach the top, drink Scotch whisky all night long, and die behind the wheel. For Donald Fagen, insulated by all those Steely Dan CD reissue royalties, it's just time enough to ponder the follow-up to your debut solo album.

Kamakiriad is what happens when the narrator of The Nightfly takes a peek into the future - a sophisticated dystopia which well deserves Fagen's own description of his and Steely Dan's sound as 'faux-luxe'. Taking delivery of his new 10-cylinder, steam-powered Kamakiri - the model with the hydroponic farm in the back - he cruises off up the 'Trans-Island Skyway', commenting on what he passes along the way to the concluding 'Teahouse on the Tracks' eight songs later. It's a continuation of both the style and spirit of The Nightfly's 'New Frontier' and 'I G Y S', offhandedly optimistic despite the ominous cracks in the future facade, the kind of portrait that could only be painted by a youthful sci-fi enthusiast and jazz buff turned sourpuss pop cynic.

Though slightly more aggressive in the rhythm section, and somewhat fuller in the horn arrangements, Kamakiriad is instantly recognisable as the late-period Steely Dan sound, a comparison made all the more pertinent by the presence of Fagen's old Dan cohort Walter Becker as producer, bassist and guitarist. Becker's quite a virtuoso: on guitar, he has a relaxed, swingy jazz style, while his bass lines bring to mind the circuitous peregrinations of the Motown legend James Jamerson. This track is one of the standouts - though, as with The Nightfly, there are no duds - with Fagen's crafty lyric hints couched in the most incongruous of lounge-jazz idioms. Who else could sing a couplet like 'We hit the street with visors down / With our thermasuits sealed up tight' and make it seem like the most natural, wholesome, new-age thing on earth? Grown-up album of the year, so far.


Too Long in Exile

(Exile/Polydor 519 219-2)

ANOTHER Van Morrison album: more songs about shellfish and poets? Well, no, as it happens - apart, that is, from the mentions of Joyce, Beckett and Wilde in the title-track (where, to be fair, they share the honours with Alex Higgins and Georgie Best) and a setting of Yeats's 'Before the World Was Made' which slips imperceptibly in among the covers and Van originals.

The twin obsessions - with the sources of artistic inspiration and with the reassessment of his own past - that have marked his recent albums have been superseded here by greater equanimity: 'Wasted Years', one of two duets with John Lee Hooker, and 'Till We Get the Healing Done' both point to a mood of optimistic fulfilment we haven't heard with any conviction from Van since Tupelo Honey. Likewise, 'In the Forest' recalls that album's atavistic pastoralism, and 'Ball & Chain' - the obverse of Sting's 'If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free' - celebrates the kind of stability he enjoyed at that time. Here the singer celebrates his union: 'I want you to be my ball and chain'. It's quite bizarre, in its own way: Mr Grumpy actually sounds happy for most of this album]

Between these new songs there is a selection of covers which includes his own 'Gloria' (the other Hook duet) and songs by Brook Benton, James Moody and Doc Pomus, whose 'Lonely Avenue' could have been written to order for Van. Warm and uplifting, Too Long in Exile marks a welcome diversion from the dreary solipsism of his ostensibly more 'spiritual' albums, and if the title and cover photo - an Irish bar dwarfed by the elevated railway of some American city, a depressing slice of urban noir - are anything to go by, perhaps the first of many.


Dream Harder

(Geffen GED 24476)

AS Van Morrison returns from exile to Ireland, so Mike Scott departs for America. Fair exchange? You bet, though he too takes with him a W B Yeats lyric ('Love and Death'), by way of hostage.

There have been a few other changes in The Waterboys, too: Dream Harder sounds as if Scott has noted his former partner Karl Wallinger's success with World Party and has followed suit, switching from the mock-Oirish jiggery- pokery of recent albums to a brash folk-rock style that all but mocks the plangent grandeur of his own early works. The trouble is, he can't decide whether he should return to his old Dylan-influenced ranting or go along with neo-hippy zeitgeist, which you might have thought would have difficulty co-existing.

Scott opens with 'The New Life', a Dylanesque snarl of no great accomplishment in which he sings that 'There's a war in the Gulf / A pain in my head', neatly reducing geopolitical catastrophe to a supporting role in his own life. Here, and in 'Preparing to Fly', each line is delivered like a stone tablet while illuminating merely his own view: all those 'I's in one song can't be good for the soul, surely?

But if Scott's Dylan style is questionable, his neo-hippy style is simply ludicrous: full of new-age nonsense about Glastonbury, the return of the god Pan, how Mike 'blew his mind' on Lewis, and lyrics like 'Hey, ho, skeedoodladdle-oh, spiritual city gonna watch you grow'. Or, even better, 'Corn circles / Pretty patterns in the corn / Like something out of the future / Or something very old'. Yes, and Julian Cope is the reincarnation of Merlin.