The re-kindling of one of rock’s greatest songwriting partnerships bore fruit with Two Against Nature in 2000 and by sheer inertia, brought forth a follow-up with Everything Must Go a mere three years later after spending only months instead of years recording it. “A veritable wind sprint” is how the band portrayed such a short gap (for them, anyway) between studio albums.
Although Everything is the last Steely Dan album and a full decade old at this writing, it’s also is the most overlooked record in their entire catalog. Donald Fagen recently opined that it’s “in some ways better than Two Against Nature” and I’m in agreement with that. The boys went retro in their recording technique, cutting the basic tracks live in the studio with a real band and returned to analog recording. That’s a far cry from the digitized, sanitized, Pro Tools creation of Nature, which used virtually a whole different set of studio musicians for each track.
Accordingly, Everything is their loosest set of tracks since Countdown To Ecstasy and it’s also the first time Becker and Fagen went with a single drummer, Keith Carlock, all the way through since that 1973 release. Thus, Carlock can boast of a feat that not even Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd or Bernard Purdie can claim. Becker remains the lone lead guitar player but also handles all the bass, too, a welcome development since he’s a terrific bassist.
Carlock’s cheerful beats from track to track help to define the character of this album, as does the overall concert-ready vibe. And yet, this remains a superbly recorded and finely executed album. They managed to relax without compromising anything in the way of sharp musicianship and savvy songwriting. The comeback album may have lyrics that are more artful and some tracks that are simply brilliant (amongst a few not-so-brilliant ones). The follow-up album is more consistent, with shorter peaks but no real valleys, either.
There’s another thing going for it: many songs are loosely connected by an overall theme, which may be a first in Steely Dan history. Much of the lyrical content are keen observations of America during the post-dotcom bust through Becker’s and Fagen’s typical cheerfully apocalyptic lens, covering that brief period between the time the internet bubble popped and the day when Osama Bin Laden firmly shook the nation’s most basic sense of security.
First World concerns are the order of the day, like the demise of the shopping mall. “The Last Mall” sets the tone for this record with an “I.G.Y.” ambling groove and Becker’s blues guitar punctuating each end of Fagen’s couplets, a la “Pretzel Logic.” Already some differences from the prior record are noticeable: the lean, loose arrangement and — I dunno if it’s the analog or the mixing — but it’s a little warmer and less treble-y, too. Fagen’s vocal is in fine form; he never would have been able to belt out that “roll your cart back up the aisle” line so convincingly soulful back in the old days. Some playfulness is allowed as the song wraps up with some horn blasts, a drum fill and a false note.
It remains to be seen if Everything Must Go stands as the last Steely Dan album, but if it is, it’s full of sweetheart Sunset Specials.