Short Takes – The Nightfly – Donald Fagen (1982)
What more can be said about this much celebrated album? Probably not a huge amount, save for my own personal reflections and memories. The Nightfly holds a particularly mythic place in my life, and is ingrained so deeply into my personality that is impossible for me to conceive of it never existing. And by mythic, I mean mythically apocalyptic. It always conjured up something of the end times, of humanity gazing lovingly back at it’s optimism soon to be snuffed out. Fagen alludes to this nostalgia in the liner notes;
Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.
It may have also had something to do with the fact that I was reading The Stand for the first time, and would often have it playing in the background as I attempted to read King’s dense epic.
There is something so American about it, that I found, and still find, so alluring; the dense barbershop style vocal harmonies, rich and intriguing Jazz influenced chord progressions, consummate musicianship, all with a twist of blues (thank you Larry Carlton – check out his solos on the title track and Greenflower Street). As a child, I had no idea how slick this record was, it just sounded great to me and from my bedroom in Kent, UK, it was the sound of a glamorous, far away adult world. Later in life, when discussing this album with friends in the pub, I would be excoriated for liking the extreme sheen of the recording (and other Steely Dan records, in particular, Gaucho). But, as I always argued, this was part of the aesthetic that interacted closely and explicitly in tandem with Fagen’s wry lyrics. How could I.G.Y (International Geophysical Year) communicate it’s sense of bright eyed optimism if it’s glacial, digitally thin soundscape was absent? Yes, it’s smooth, but also at the same time, world-weary and noir cool. I eventually won this argument after around a decade and a lot of ale.
There aren’t many albums that can hold my attention from start to finish, and this is one of them. I venture that this is about as perfect a record as can be made. It’s certainly something Fagen has yet to replicate, although there is still much to enjoy in later works. But where the Kamakiriad’s sequenced fluff feels like a demo (Springtime, anyone?) The Nightfly literally, well, flys.