Steely Dan’s underrated Everything Must Go is even more pertinent today

When Two Against Nature was released on Leap Day 2000, it was like the past 20 years of musical fads, artists, hip-hop, grunge, hair metal, speed metal etc. never existed. TvN picked up virtually where Gaucho left off. A little more jaded, sour, nuanced, even more sophisticated and complex under the sheen, steeped in layers of cool jazz phrases, but unmistakably Steely Dan. They were rewarded a year later at the Grammys.

Then the world suddenly turned upside down as the celebration of the new millennium morphed into the gray dust, shock, and disbelief of 9/11. A new world of paranoia, fear, anger, limited expectations, and hardened cynicism emerged. As the smoke cleared, Steely Dan slunk back into the studio with their live band plus a few additional NYC session aces, and emerged after a much shorter hiatus. Let’s revisit Everything Must Go, released on June 10, 2003 …

Two Against Nature featured multiple layers of production and voices of cool jazz and hard bop over a funk pulse — a very slick 50s TV or movie score sound. The vocals were just another instrument. TvN revealed its layers with repeated listens. In contrast, Everything Must Go placed the vocals and tunes up front with instrumental accompaniment that harkened back to late 40s bluesy jazz and roots of R&B. More immediate and digestible, but there is an aura that is very wrong, almost nuclear in apprehension. Upside down.

Against perceived type, Steely Dan was through with buzz. They eschewed digital recording to click and headphones and did the core of the album live-tracked and onto analog tape. Vocal and instrument overdubs were modest by their standards with only the slightest touch of digital tweaking at the end of the editing process, as the sound of their touring band permeates the recording. Walter Becker holds down the bass, shares guitar work with Jon Herington and even takes lead vocals.

Live wunderkind Keith Carlock is the sole drummer on EMG, and he drives the album in a restrained jazzy way: awesome, but the monster is rarely let out of the box. Things seem backwards and bleak with loserdom in the 21st Century a running theme. Everything Must Go is a vocal and harmony-centric album that builds in vigor as the tracks progress. The first offering “The Last Mall” ends abruptly as if a terrorist cell dropped the big one on us. The final and title track on the album seems more like the place to start with Walt Weiskopf tipping the fez to John Coltrane and Ascension.

In fact, I find Everything Must Go more compelling when the tracks are played in reverse order. Try this experiment, if you dare!

Weiskopf’s tenor sax leads the charge on the title track channeling ‘Trane and provide a preview of the delicious bridge. Donald Fagen’s Rhodes never sounded better. A corporation goes down Enron style in excess” “the sky the moon…first run movies. Does anybody get lucky twice?”…a premonition of the Wall Street collapse and Great Recession of 2008-2009.

“Lunch with Gina” grooves hard with a strong party bouncer of a tune, and sassy horn chart over bubbling rhythm guitars. Donald is stood up again…or is he a victim of Gina the Grim Reaperess? “We got nothing but time.” Kewl synth solo with semi-shredding breaks up the party as the stalking continues.

“Pixeleen” is a fantastic tune of our favorite virtual video game teen spy hero with her “as if boyfriend Randall” hero. There’s great clarity in construction and a spectacular call and response chorus and verse. Bill Charlap amazes on the ivories and shuts down the band.

“Green Book” continues to explore the new virtual world where we escape the horrors of severed heads and torture camps on the news. Steely Dan gets pretty jiggy on a superb recording that features a stirring give and take solo between Walter Becker and Donald Fagen on guitar and synth, respectively. We’re so in love with this “dirty city, festive icons, and house on fire.” A true album highlight.

Walter struts his bad self across the time-space continuum pimping the “Slang of Ages.” “Slang,” as in rap, with the opposite sex or slang as in the earliest slang, music itself? No matter. Ada Dyer, Carolyn Leonhart, Catherine Russell, Tawatha Agee slink through some sexy and tight backing vocals in contrast to Walter Becker’s balky, but effective, lead.

“Godwhacker” conjures up a Warner Bros. cartoon view of the ultimate chase after Mr. Big for all the shit that’s gone down at a time where Aquarius was expected. Run, run, run … the rhythm section of Carlock, Walter’s bass, and Hugh McCracken and Jon Herington rhythm guitars just absolutely cooks. And yes. that is the return of Donald Fagen’s synth blues harp(!) followed immediately by a tasty guitar solo from Walter Becker.

“Blues Beach” is a perky nuclear fallout Spongebob Squarepants kind of tribute to late ’60s pop (Laura Nyro, 5th Dimension, Sly & the Family Stone). An odd choice for a lead single with mighty recordings like “Pixeleen” and “Lunch with Gina” lurking. Taken as a fun one-off ditty with a twisty bridge and sneaky chords “Blues Beach” is a guilty pleasure. Is that sunburn from Ol’ Sol or an H-bomb flash?

“Things I Miss the Most” piles upon our litany of losers from CEOs, the Almighty, the dead, the dying, ubercyber addicts, the lost in time, and the nuked to add a recent divorceé who misses their lifestyle, sex, and cool stuff rather than actually … her. He preaches his pep talk as sly jokes over microwave dinners and “building the Andrea Doria out of balsa wood.” The horn chart and keyboard work are really fantastic. There’s almost a Broadway musical element.

“The Last Mall” is more fitting as an end — the very end — as impending doom is prepared to take the last artifice of cheap American commercialism in a sudden and violent way. Donald’s vocals are strong, more lively than on TvN, as they are throughout the album: “Rooolllll yer cart back up the aisle.” This is the big goodbye, the last call before meeting the blood orange sky when the plug is pulled. The perfect ending to the story was here all along … at the beginning.

Everything Must Go has aged oddly well, with songs and a message even more pertinent today than they were when it was released. The sound remains classic and unwavering, perhaps a reflection of the more live and organic recording approach.

While, ironically, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker carry on alive and well as a live act, EMG may be their swan song as a studio group. But somewhere in the collapse there is permanence: Everything Must Go lives on as a reminder of when we were all upside down and out. The tunesmithery is quite sharp, and the lyrics remain sly and witty.

It’s more than worth revisiting, as is the entire 21st collection of Steely Dan and solo albums.

John Lawler

John Lawler

J.M. Lawler is researcher living somewhere left of the Rio Grande, Texas, where he practices science - until he gets it right. He was first exposed to Steely Dan by a neighbor and the static of AM radio at a young age. Reach John at jml2621@gmail.com; contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
John Lawler