Everything Must Go deserved Two Against Nature‘s plaudits. Besides a credible anti-Bush (I think) song (“Godwhacker”), four or five of Walter Becker’s most elegant and acerbic solos, and indelible ones all over the place by saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, it even sports a title worthy of Steely Dan. Donald Fagen’s fourth solo album Sunken Condos boasts another, deservedly: it’s his best record since The Nightfly. “I’m Not The Same Without You” is the sort of coup that only he could pull off. “Since you’ve been gone an awesome change has come about,” he sings while his own piano and a frisky drum part project the sense of liberty that as a singer he’s too knowing and restrained to indulge in. Loving Fagen means coming to terms with irony at its most metaphysical — in the seventeenth century Donne/Herbert sense. He’s not exactly willing himself to be enthusiastic so much as trusting the audience to understand the joy of winking at them.
“I’m Not The Same…” should have been the first track; it’s better than “Slinky Thing,” a conceit looking for a referent and finding it only in Jon Herington’s guitar. Sunken Condos simmers; coming to a boil would be unseemly. Besides, deserved revisionism has salvaged Gaucho from two decades worth of ignominy; no longer can Fagen surprise us with a nostalgic mode as ephemeral as a hurricane in December. Coming after Gaucho, the optimism of “I.G.Y.” and “Ruby Baby” felt like a cold soda can against a sweaty face. Fagen’s voice sounded like a caustic but well-meaning friend suddenly lapsing into what he would consider the confessional mode. Sunken Condos‘ real surprise is a cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto,” designed to press the same buttons that “Hey Nineteen” did, making a hash out of notions of white privilege. The shock of hearing Fagen sing “When you shake your booty, ghetto-style” pales besides the arrangement that he and co-producer Michael Leonhart carve out of clarinet, a mocking guitar, and obtrusive Hammond organ. There’s nothing “out” about it, let alone “ghetto.” He’s just another white boy who can’t resist certain pleasures so long as he can cling to his white, privileged, extraordinarily resourceful self.