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Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly: A Modern Classic

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"Your independent station,WJAZ/With jazz and conversation," Donald Fagen croons on the title track of his 1982 solo album, The Nightfly. Indeed, the modern classic involves conversation about hope and disillusionment; the past, present, and future; and confidence and uncertainty, all set to an irresistible jazz beat.

Each track on the album stands out for its complex lyrics and arrangements, along with Fagen's superb piano and vocals. While some of The Nightfly's contents include echoes of Steely Dan ("The New Frontier" being a prime example), it established Fagen's unique identity apart from the legendary group. Twenty-six years later, the impeccable album sounds as fresh today as it did in the early '80s.

The album kicks off with "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)," perhaps one of the most thematically complex—and least likely—hits of his career. Fagen narrates the piece from the perspective of a starry-eyed young man from the past, dazzled by visions of a technologically advanced future. "What a beautiful world this will be/What a glorious time to be free," he sings. He envisions space travel, cities "powered by the sun," and a machine "to make big decisions/Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision." Typical of Fagen, he throws in a seemingly sarcastic line amidst this optimism: "Perfect weather for a streamlined world/There'll be spandex jackets one for everyone." The jaunty piano-dominated arrangement suggests this positivity.Donald Fagen's The Nightfly Yet the cover of The Nightfly reflects the opposite of the song's sentiment; a black-and-white image of Fagen, cigarette dangling from one hand, in an anonymous radio broadcasting studio. His downcast look suggests disillusionment and cynicism, a man who has lived through disappointments as well as upbeat times.

"Green Flower Street" further represents this disappointment, from the perspective of a man lamenting the innocent times of his youth: "Since May there's trouble every night…Where we once danced our sweet routine/It reeks of wine and kerosene." Instead of finding "murder in the street," he longs for a place where he and his lover "wear neon bends in daylight sky." The shuffling rhythm does recall such Steely Dan gems as "Peg," but the nostalgia is all Fagen. Incidentally, he performed a live version of "Green Flower Street" during his tour with the all-star New York Rock and Soul Revue back in 1991. Their live album Live at the Beacon contains a catchy revision of this classic jam.

Reverting to his role as DJ, Fagen trots out a jazzy makeover of Leiber and Stoller's "Ruby Baby," which tells of teenage frustration, particularly of rejection. "I got a girl and Ruby is her name/She don't love me, but I love her just the same," he complains, adding that "like a ghost" he will haunt the object of his affections. In the next song, "Maxine," the narrator gets the girl and dreams of a future with her. Featuring harmonies worthy of the Four Freshman or Manhattan Transfer, the song recounts the young man's idealistic visions of life after graduation. "We'll move up to Manhattan/And fill the place with friends/Drive to the coast and drive right back again," he sings in a wistful tone. Yet certain images puncture this perfect scene—he mentions he and his lover meet at the mall and "try to make sense of the suburban sprawl." Will they really reach this perfect state of domestic bliss? Uncertainty seeps through Fagen's lyrics.

Next comes the standout track of The Nightfly, "The New Frontier." A deceptively cheerful ditty, the song's lyrics detail the hapless narrator's attempt to seduce a woman into joining him in his bomb shelter. "We'll pretend that it's the real thing/And stay together all night long," Fagen sings. The man prepares for the new frontier by stating his desires to "learn design and study overseas." Whether the woman who has "a touch of Tuesday Weld" is buying the man's story is unclear. Fagen even gives a shout-out to Dave Brubeck, stating that he hears that the woman likes him, too. "He's an artist, a pioneer/We've got to have some music for the new frontier," he sings. Is Fagen suggesting that jazz will figure prominently in the future, or is it just a cheesy pickup line? No matter what, Fagen's salute to Brubeck perfectly suits the rest of the album.

The DJ returns on the title track, cutting a lonely and detached figure. He fields calls about "a race of men in the trees" and "tough legislation," eventually sneering, "I wait all night for calls like these." He brags that "tonight the night is mine," but admits heartbreak: "I wish I had a heart like ice," he laments. He recounts a long lost love, stating that despite his cool, jaded exterior, "Once there was a time/When love was in my life," and that "the answer's still the same/It was you." But he immediately returns to his DJ patter about "jazz and conversation," presumably puffing on his cigarette and awaiting that next phone call.

This jaded outlook resumes in "The Goodbye Look," a calypso-infused track that details a man's futile attempts to seduce a woman in tropical paradise. "I know what happens, I've read the book/I believe I just got the goodbye look," he sneers. But with images of a colonel "standing in the sun/With his stupid face the glasses and the gun" and talk of "action after dark," this hardly seems like a vacation. I love the seemingly throwaway line, "Would you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen," evoking images of a dejected man sitting at a bar, befuddled by the world. Romance and revolution clash, prompting the narrator to complain that "the rules have changed, it's not the same/It's all new players in a whole new ball game." Innocence is gone, replaced by cynicism.

Ending on a nostalgic note, The Nightfly concludes with "Walk Between Raindrops," a charming tune which functions as a more jaded take on "Singing in the Rain." The lovers, walking in Miami, fight but make up as they "watched the regulars rush the big hotels." The romantic scene includes the "causeway by the big hotels," an unlikely environment for an intimate moment. But an idealistic, romantic view returns when Fagen sings that "you opened your umbrella/But we walked between the raindrops back to your door," hardly the jaded perspective of the other songs. Thus Fagen ends on an optimistic note, suggesting through nostalgia that there may be hope for the future after all.

The Nightfly spawned two sequels, 1993's Kamakiriad and 2006's Morph the Cat, both meditations on middle age and mortality. But The Nightfly remains Fagen's solo masterpiece, an album that still entrances with its jazz and rock mix, complex lyrics, and contradictory philosophies (namely optimism versus pessimism). In other words, The Nightfly contains all the elements that make it a modern classic.

For more information on Fagen, visit his website. To learn more about The Nightfly, read Robert J. Toth's excellent analysis from the Wall Street Journal.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • DanFan9

    Nitpicking from a big fan, the track is simply called “New Frontier”

  • TheBigDS

    Thanks for posting! I agree, this album is a masterpiece.

    “The Goodbye Look” is one of the richest stories on the album. I read an additional level in that song, where he finds himself in Cuba at the wrong time. “All the Americans are gone except for two; the embassy’s been hard to reach.” The rest of the song is about the realization that Castro’s in charge and he’ll be leaving soon, either on a friend’s boat, or the Colonel with the gun will hold “a small reception just for me behind the big casino on the sea.”

    Check out my review of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly on http://www.theBigDS.com