Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Donald Fagen - The Nightfly (1982)

I must confess that on first listening to I.G.Y. (named for the International Geophysical Year), the first track on The Nightfly and perhaps that which most encapsulates its themes and concerns, I was not taken – nice, I thought, but a little too commercial sounding. However, the sheen of polish, the feel that every note and lyric is a precisely-placed piece in a well-oiled machine, is one of the purposeful aspects of this album, production which is not only a vehicle but also an expression of its essence (and the album is one of the first fully digital recordings). Hence we can see this as a conscious choice in the same manner as Green Gartside’s abrupt and complete change of direction on Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 – and there’s also a resemblance in the synthetic funk and reggae which serve as shaping, yet low-key influences (while, unlike Gartside, for Fagen, jazz and, to a lesser extent, Sinatraesque swing and lounge are musical touchstones). Indeed, the subtle way in which this move is accomplished is a testament to Fagen’s intelligence and his painstaking approach to producing work with an effortless, yet highly mannered sensibility.

While ‘steampunk’ has come to be a common descriptive, we’re still lacking (at least as far as I’m aware) a phrase to describe the science fiction world envisaged between the 1940s and 60s, an art deco, Grecian (or, on the dark side, noirish) vision of the shining future – of the kind depicted in Alphaville, Forbidden Planet, innumerable pulp magazine stories and illustrations, and more recently the odd but interesting film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – a world perhaps best explored in William Gibson’s seminal short story The Gernsback Continuum, a perfect written accompaniment to Fagen’s album. Another point of reference might be the artificially-coloured past, hyper-real yet at the same time veiled in deceptive nostalgia, depicted in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective – or, to take our references further back, to the soundstages of musicals like Singin’ In The Rain. In the context of the music of the 1980s, we might also think of the Suprematist and cubist Soviet stylings beloved of the early incarnations of bands like Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark among others. This is a space of ‘graphite and glitter,’ a best of all possible worlds in which, in contrast to contemporary society, utopian optimism about the future – and, in particular, the role of technology – remains general currency; but at the same time it is a digital version of a Waitsian or Hopperesque milieu in which romantic dramas take place against a vaguely sinister backdrop of dives and lowlives.

Fagen, in the detached tone which is apparent throughout the work itself, describes the album (in the liner notes) as 'certain fantasies' that might be entertained 'during the late fifties and early sixties' by 'a young man ... of my general height, weight and build,' and there is a sense here of the mingling of possibility and melancholy, a nostalgia for a world that never was (perhaps not unconnected is the long period of creative barrenness he experienced after The Nightfly’s release). At the same time, there is a sense of an ultimate accommodation which is not without its pleasure, epitomised in the almost-showtune final track, Walk Between Raindrops. An album made for late-night driving, The Nightfly (and here we see the emerging possibilities which would continue to be explored in synthesized music) is a triumph of an artificiality which nonetheless contains space for affect – indeed, in which the very quality of artificiality reveals affect as a construct, but one which is entirely experienced and hence never less than real – or, perhaps, never less than concrete.

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