Comeback 2000 LP ‘Two Against Nature’ proved duo still had style
Writer’s note: Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker died on Sept. 3. Together with vocalist Donald Fagen, for decades the duo pleased critics and fans alike with their unique jazz fusion. After spending several years apart and having last put out a record in 1980, the band returned to the studio in the late ‘90s to record “Two Against Nature,” which eventually was released in 2000. That LP (along with 2003 follow-up “Everything Must Go”) sparkled as it showed that Steely Dan could still write and produce good music. Fagen recently announced that Steely Dan’s previously announced 2017 tour would go on as planned after Becker’s death.
The year was 2000, and Steely Dan hadn’t released a studio album in two full decades.
After “Gaucho” was released in 1980, the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had parted ways, and the professional breakup left fans wondering if Steely Dan would ever perform together again. For 15 years, Becker and Fagen remained separated, with only Fagen making musical contributions, having recorded a pair of solo albums that won critical acclaim. Becker was content harvesting avocados on his farm in Maui.
But things changed in the mid-‘90s when Becker and Fagen reunited on stage and rekindled a musical spark with one another. Ironically, Steely Dan had shunned the road in the original incarnation’s later years, instead focusing on studio perfection while recording masterpieces such as “Aja” and “The Royal Scam.”
Rumors of a reunion had persisted for years, and the hope of a new Steely Dan album was enough to keep fans eager. And Fagen and Becker would eventually oblige, finding their way back into the studio In 1997 and beginning recording sessions for what would become “Two Against Nature.”
No one knew what to expect when the compact disc finally made its way to store shelves in 2000, though. Would it prove that Steely Dan were truly timeless? Or would it be a colossal disappointment for those who had waited so long for new output?
Well, it wound up proving that the band still could make relevant jazz-fusion music accompanied by witty lyrics. And it was commercially successful, winning four Grammys in 2001, including one for Album of the Year. It also spawned a pair of hit singles in “Cousin Dupree” and “Janie Runaway.”
The former track is a catchy tune, but it has an air of creepiness about it, as it chronicles a man’s sexual desire for his cousin, who has grown from a little girl into a dashing young woman. The latter tells the story of a girl who runs away to perform in the jazz clubs of New York.
Overall, “Two Against Nature” is better as a whole than as a sum of its parts. Fagen’s vocals are flawless, while Becker’s riffs on guitar and bass serve as a reminder of just what made Steely Dan great in their heyday. The trademark horns also serve that purpose.
Fagen’s lyrics, however, aren’t quite as clever and biting as they were in the early days. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the LP was well worth a 20-year wait. It’s more than any devout Steely Dan fan could have hoped for.