Steely Dan, Everything Must Go (2003)
Steely Dan have this sweet spot they hit when all the machinations are in high gear and they've abandoned their flaky neurotic outer selves so well (everything must go) that all that's left is the essential absolute (and it takes a lot of work and self-awareness to do that!) and when they hit this spot it's like the warm wild twinkle of an emerald, bending into the senses like a pleasant ache. Well, here's the new Dan record; the trial run's over and rah rah rah the real recording reunion's begun, the retroactive followup to Aja and its unrelenting expressionist strokes (although hey Gaucho was brill too -- but that would be next in the sequence). I'm always engaged here, even from a subconscious position, snapping to full attention whenever I need to rewind the CD a few seconds (about 1:02 into "Slang of Ages," 0:47 into "Pixeleen," the entire entirety of "Green Book" but especially the 2:07 and 4:45 marks) and make sure I haven't dreamt what I just heard. No dream, buckaroo. More like an elaborate musical -- the jolly jokey seltzer-in-your-pants overture that readies you for the ACTUAL beginning, then the expository emotional stuff w/ interstitial laffs to throw the audience a bone for putting up with being dropped into the vat of partykill so early on, then a funny-but-minor transitional setpiece, then the lovable villain with the goofy name takes the spotlight ("GodWhacker"!!), then something cool and majestic to send you off into the second act, which if you stick around is where the real payoff is, the "earned drama" and devastating romanticism and squalid desire and goosepimple-toecurl noir. It's all very shrewdly structured, but unlike some Flaming Lips concept thing, it doesn't wear its (cough cough) STRUCTURE on its sleeve (do you see!!?) with the conspicuous embroidered logo of an insecure amateur. These old yutzes know what they're doing.
There's a doozy of a punchline in the last number, the title track (a kicky midtempo, with a cautiously impulsive spring in its step). Comes early in the song, unexpected and much-welcomed after the melodramatic tenor-sax bombast that introduces it: "I move to dissolve the corporation in a pool of margaritas." If I could afford a bottle of Cuervo Gold (times are tough), I'd raise it to that.