We all like to think that Steely Dan’s music is distinguished by sly lyrics, complex harmonies, elite musicianship and sharp production. While those attributes might be found in nearly every Steely Dan song, the most instantly recognizable feature is not any of those things. It’s Donald Fagen’s voice.
Fagen didn’t set out to be a singer, he wanted to be a Brill Building songwriter alongside his musical partner Walter Becker. Those plans got altered when it became apparent that they needed to form a band and perform their own tunes in order to get them heard. And then when he and Becker failed to find a vocalist for the band who could consistently carry their songs the way they intended, Fagen was pushed into that role by default, and his is the lead voice on all but a small handful of Steely Dan songs.
I guess if I were to step back from my Steely Dan fandom and describe that voice in a more objective way, I’d say it’s always on key but it’s also whiney and nasally. I know those qualities have turned off some people from even wanting to listen to Steely Dan, but it’s never been an issue with me. It’s not the reason why I listen to SD, but at the same time, Fagen’s singing has a singular character that’s become an integral part of the music. Dylan fans can appreciate that sentiment.
That said, there’s an occasional moment where his vocals go above “good enough” up to “really good.” Fagen’s delivery strikes me as one of a lounge singer; he tends to croon his songs, unlike your typical rock vocalist, and when a song is a lounge type song, he seems more in his element than usual and rises to the occasion. “Deacon Blues” is one example. The best example that comes to my mind, however, is the soulful piano bar ballad “Maxine.”
Almost the entire song is sung with Fagen’s overdubbed harmonies richer than any heard on a SD song, which is noteworthy by itself. But then he sings the bridge with one voice, executing such excellent control, phrasing and cadence:
Mexico City is like another world
Nice this year they say
You’ll be my senorita in jeans and pearls
But first, let’s get off this highway, off this highway
It’s hard to imagine what could make this song better. Oh wait, there is one thing: a Michael Breaker sax solo.
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