The Nightfly Overview: Donald Fagen’s first solo album is what I like to call his “George Harrison” moment: that unexpected flash of brilliance coming right after leaving a successful rock band. The Nightfly isn’t nearly the same as All Things Must Pass but there was this undeniable focus, a wellspring of superb material perhaps inspired by being freed from the confines of working within a partnership. And, there’s a theme, always good for enforcing a razor-sharp focus. Maybe this record didn’t scale the artistic peaks that some of Steely Dan’s best moments did, but I’m hard pressed to find a rock album from the 80s that’s so consistently strong from start to finish as this one is.
In fifth grade science class, I learned about a “International Geophysical Year,” which ran from the middle of 1957 to the end of 1958 (no, I’m not quite that old, but the textbooks were). I didn’t remember much else about this event, except that it ran in the late 50’s, which was enough to help me understand years later the context of Donald Fagen’s Top 40 hit, “I.G.Y.”
Being quite familiar by this time the ironic humor of Steely Dan, I chuckled a bit at the naïveté that Fagen portrays with the overflowing optimism he depicts that was going on in that time, knowing full well in hindsight that the world would fall way short of these goals in the ensuing decade, and by “seventy-six” we weren’t “A.O.K.” But the song doesn’t really get by on irony, and if you wanted to take the positive vibes to heart, that works, too, because the melody is so warm and sunny.
Whichever disposition you care to apply to this tune, Fagen built one of those rare, note-perfect pop songs. That infectious shuffle took two drummers and Roger Nichols’ WENDEL II to make, and there’s 15 players on the song (not counting four backup vocalists), but the music sounds as one unit. Fagen’s funky synth blues harp is the only deviation from that tightly-constructed sound; this is the kind of nirvana Fagen, Nichols and producer Gary Katz were going for with Gaucho but didn’t hit the target as squarely as they did here.
Like the era “I.G.Y.” characterizes, the song itself gives hope that the rest of the album of going to be “A.O.K.” In this case, the effusiveness is justified.
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