To my future daughter,
I wish I knew what sort of country you’ll grow old in. My generation thinks it inherited a raw deal, sure, but as I look around at the state of world in 2016, I can’t help but wonder, despairingly, how bad things will get by the time you inherit this crazy old planet.
I can’t take care of you your entire life—and I’m sure you won’t want me to, once you grow into your independence—and I can’t ensure that you’re equipped with all the the tools—mental, emotional, physical—to thrive in whatever society you’ll find yourself surviving in. And I can’t know at all what it’ll be like to experience all this as a woman, in what remains, distressingly, a world built to accommodate men.
All I can offer you is whatever passes for wisdom here in 2016. All I really have to give is the knowledge your old man has accumulated over his all-too-brief life, so far.
What I hope you know—what I need to tell you— is this: Gaucho is the best Steely Dan album.
Yes, sure, Aja is both commercially and critically more successful. Yes, it’s considered Steely Dan at the height of their pristine studio wizardry, a gorgeous and seamless melding of jazz and rock, with more soul and funk than they’re usually given credit for—overall the undisputed acme of that smooth California sound. But Gaucho, that glorious mess of a follow-up, is really the best work they ever did.
Look, Steely Dan never put out a bad album. Some people prefer their more traditionally rockin’ first couple albums, when they were actually a conventional, touring band. And that’s fine—they were a tight unit, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was a helluva guitar player. But no one can deny, my unborn daughter, that their evolution into a pure studio act, and the relentless perfectionism of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, produced some of the best popular music of the 20th century.
It was on Aja that they achieved mastery over music—they produced, on vinyl, the perfect songs they heard in their heads. The tumultuous, years-in-the-making followup, though, saw them produce a beautiful deconstruction.
From the very beginning, Gaucho, with that meticulous shuffle from the legendary Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, is an icier, darker affair than Aja. The entire album glides along, future daughter, on a sort of exhausted groove—the sun’s up and the coke’s run out, but at least it’s still a beautiful day in Los Angeles.
The Aja singles had been unambiguously joyous. “Peg” and “Josie” are party music, albeit with the duo’s usual askew lyrical ambiguities (just what “foreign movie” is the narrator talking about with Peg?). “Hey Nineteen,” Gaucho’s first single, is a disturbing joke—a decrepit old hipster’s lament that his teen plaything thinks he’s square (which he is). The second single—featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar!—is probably the first ever heroin song that actually makes it sound fun.
Overall, unborn future daughter to whom I am directing this life advice, Gaucho is a sparser album, that ruminates on a couple mid-tempo grooves without exploding into Aja’s jazz epiphanies—there are fewer “difficult” chords and complex harmonies than its predecessor. This just gives us more of an opportunity to luxuriate in the demented consciousness of the characters inhabiting and narrating each song, each one a loser in an entirely different way, from the ridiculous Gaucho of the title track, abandoned by the side of the highway in his “spangled leather poncho,” to paranoid maniac in “My Rival,” who has detectives crawling around town looking for the man with a scar across his face and a hearing aid. Meanwhile, underpinning the whole thing is the foreboding knowledge that it’s the end of the ‘70s, and Gaucho’s L.A. losers are marked for extinction.
(One side note, future daughter: Steely Dan’s early-2000s reunion albums, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, are both solid outings—the latter in particular is underrated—but neither reach the heights of their prime-era output, and both are something of a return to a “live” sound as opposed to their baroque ‘70s studio perfectionism.)
It’s by no means a perfect album in the way Aja is—or even in the simpler way that Katy Lied is—but, my beautiful girl, I really want you know that I think Gaucho is the purest expression of the entire Steely Dan aesthetic.