Next to Lennon and McCartney, Becker and Fagen is, in my view, the highest quality songwriting partnership in rock. But for Lennon/McCartney songs from around 1965 on, you can always tell which ones were primarily written by John and which ones bore the mark of Paul (psst, here’s a clue: note whoever sang lead on the song). Not so simple with Walter and Donald: Fagen almost always sang lead on the classic Steely Dan songs, and Becker never did. And, unlike the Beatles duo, Steely Dan’s actually did partner up on composing, as a rule. So, how much of the Steely Dan Style was attributable to each of the songwriting partners was very hard to tell.
Today, we have a much better sense of the individual styles of Becker and Fagen. But that’s because we’ve got piles of interviews and six solo albums between them to help put the puzzle together. By 1993, there were two Fagen solo albums that established his own musical personality, but Becker’s could only be extrapolated by what differences existed between Fagen’s albums and Steely Dan’s, and the casual fan couldn’t tell the difference. That’s why Walter Becker’s own first solo release in 1994 had to have been one of the most highly anticipated releases by hardcore SD fans. How much of the Steely Dan snark was his? Was he responsible for all those obscure literary references? Did he pull the band into more of a rock direction in the early days or a jazz direction later on? And lastly, what does he sound like as a lead singer?
11 Tracks of Whack went a long way towards answering those questions. This is by far the most un-Dan-like album made by either or both, save for perhaps Becker’s other solo release, which is an odd result of an album produced by Steely Dan, i.e., both Backer and Fagen. But there’s enough of a connection that exists to draw some conclusions about what he brought to the partnership. They’re subtle things but also critical things.
All over 11 Tracks of Whack, Becker tends to settle on topics of drug abuse, dysfunctional relationships and observations of “a great civilization in the terminal stages.” Those were all themes we’ve heard on Dan records, but here, the dark side of the Steely Dan is often a shade or two darker, and the trademark acerbic wit is on display as well. Becker largely ignores the soul that’s near the heart of every Fagen recording, but he’s also much more willing to touch on a wider array of genres and styles overall. Rock, funk, folk, avant-pop, even country gets a visit by Steely Dan’s more mysterious half. Not a single track is apt to make anyone think, “jeepers, that sounds just like Aja or Gaucho,” but they are a welcome return to the greater diversity of the pre-Aja recordings.
A sizable minority of this collection has some truly bizarre cuts that never did connect with me, but to paraphrase “Show Biz Kids”, Becker obviously “didn’t give a fuck about anybody else” when he made this record. There were no commercial ambitions with Whack, and though that resulted in several tracks that got routinely skipped over as well as others that earned many repeats, I’d much rather hear him throw caution to the wind and give it to us raw and uncut than to play it safe and obscure the inner Walter Becker. He’s far too interesting to keep under wraps, and this was an album that needed to be made, warts and all.
“Down In The Bottom” begins with a drum track seemingly lifted straight off The Fine Young Cannibals’ 1988 hit “She Drives Me Crazy,” immediately dating the recording in that sense, but happily, it soon gets better. A few seconds in, we hear the first strains of Becker’s vocal, a weathered, strung-out warble that’s fuller than Fagen’s and despite some severe limitations — mainly range — has its own charms. A vibraphone sound appears at about the same time, too, though no one is credited with that instrument, so it’s assumed a keyboard is playing this part. Aside from that, Becker’s own distinct, thoughtful guitar lines are the other noticeable aspect of “Bottom”‘s sonic character, and the paired down arrangement along with a catchy, simple (for Steely Dan) melody makes up for production that favors sounding current over classic, a harbinger of the album as a whole.
Lyrics-wise, Becker jumps right into one of his favorite topics, drug abuse. He even recycles and modifies a line from the discarded Steely Dan song “The Bear” (Here in the suburbs where it’s hard to tell/If I got the bear or if the bear got me). Given the man’s history it can be construed as autobiographical as is, I suspect, much of the rest of Whack, and credit Becker for directing as much brutal honesty on himself as he does toward others.
This one is one of the cheerier songs on the album, too; it soon gets much more torturous. Bring it, Walter.