In an age when skilful PR hype and internet downloads have combined to shrink the gap between an artist's first steps and their acclaim as Greatest Thing Ever to little more than a few nanoseconds, the appearance of a new Donald Fagen album serves to provide a little perspective, and pour a little cooling water on pop's fevered brow.
So remote is Fagen from the desperate whirl of the modern pop industry that he seems to be operating on an entirely different time-scale. It took him 12 years to produce a follow-up to his solo debut album The Nightfly, and it's been a further 13 years since Kamakiriad. And as before, the results bear no relation to anything happening elsewhere in pop - though there is a continuity with his own oeuvre, these tracks boasting the same smooth jazz-pop lines and oblique, urbane lyricism that Fagen has made his own since he devised the form with Steely Dan.
Fagen describes Morph The Cat as the final part of a personal trilogy, its intimations of mortality providing the natural conclusion to the youthful dreams of The Nightfly and mid-life crises of Kamakiriad. And there's no denying the shadows of apprehension, both personal and political, that haunt these songs, from the eponymous, narcotizing spirit of the title-track which pervades Manhattan with a bogus sense of rapture, to the encounters with death in "Brite Nitegown". The events of 9/11, and the shaming of the American liberal instinct, underlie several songs, as the couples in "The Great Pagoda Of Funn" and "Mary Shut The Garden Door" strive to seal themselves off from the grim realities of modern life. Although Fagen adopts a more wry tone when directly addressing the post-9/11 changes in everyday life, offering in "Security Joan" a light-hearted account of a businessman's romantic obsession with an airport security guard.
In "The H Gang" and "The Night Belongs To Mona" there's a sense of the end of things. And even the most emotionally upbeat track, "What I Do", is haunted by death, with the ghost of Ray Charles offering lessons in cool to Fagen's younger self: "He says, Don don't despair, just take some time/You find your bad self - you're gonna do just fine". That is the most enduring notion to be taken from Morph The Cat: that no matter how bad things may get, the best way to surmount tribulations is by locating the essential truth of one's character and staying faithful to it - just as Fagen has stayed true to his musical style and his ironic-sardonic worldview. Which is a quite heartening message to glean from an album so pervaded with thoughts of the end.
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