Every so often, I revisit a band or album that I hate that most everyone else seems to love. I’m not looking for something that simply sold well, but something that people who seem to care about music consider great. I’m looking for something I’ve missed. Steely Dan is perhaps the most common band to get this treatment and, in this latest attempt, their 1977 release Aja gets a new listen.
The key to listening again is always to have as much of a beginner’s mind as possible and frankly, that is difficult with Steely Dan, especially now that they have been lumped into a new name for an old genre. “Soft rock,” “breeze rock” and “adult-oriented rock” are not particularly endearing, but “yacht rock” points directly to the music being as vacuous as the late 70’s/early 80’s cultural façade that produced it. It is only half-fair to Steely Dan and Aja to include them though.
The “band” at this point consists of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen along with over 35 studio musicians, all but three of whom have their own Wikipedia page. These were not any old studio lightweights. They were the heavy hitters of 70’s rock, pop and jazz studio work. Maybe more than anything, this fact points to both Aja‘s greatest strength and biggest weakness. One thing that everyone correctly points out is the quality of both the playing and the production and it is objectively impeccable. Becker and Fagen, along with producer Gary Katz, are meticulous down the smallest detail. Even as someone who hates the record, and I do still hate it, I completely agree that this is one of the best produced albums of any era. But this comes at a cost. Becker, Fagen and Katz hired professionals who play exactly what they are told as they are told to perfection. For all of its jazz trappings, there is no sense of Becker and Fagan as band leaders who coax the best performance out of their band. They are more akin to computer programmers, writing and debugging their code until they get exactly what they want. Sadly, what they get lacks the organic nature of true creativity. For all of its ambitions, Aja never redefines what a rock album can be. It merely stretches the limits of how smooth and slick and planned, how fabricated an album can be. They seem to do what they do, not because it needs to be done, but simply because they can. While Aja is a huge step forward sonically for a band that had been carefully crafting their sound from their start, it might even be a step backward in terms of emotional depth even from its mostly sterile predecessors. As Becker and Fagen progressed with their plan, they regressed, if that is possible, in terms of making a relatable record. Not every record has to be a best friend, but no record should feel like it would turn a cold shoulder if you met it on the street.
If I compare Aja and Supertramps’s Breakfast in America, albums that to me have a lot in common, the real difference is that Supertramp’s songs speak to me even when I don’t relate directly (e.g., “Goodbye Stranger”). There is a humanness that consistently eludes Steely Dan, whose songs, across their career, almost exclusively talk at me like smug hipsters. This is a common footnote in critical opinions of Steely Dan as if the shiny gloss of the studio can cover the underlying lack of emotional depth. Interestingly, Supertramp seems to be outside of the yacht rock label while Steely Dan are solidly inside for reasons that matter to people who apparently care more deeply about shallow music than I.
Still, Aja is as critically loved today as it was at its 1977 release. In 2019, Pitchfork gave it a perfect 10. While there are certainly elements that are perfect, everyone seems to forget one thing: Music is meant to move us: to cry, to dance, to sing, to change the world, to change ourselves. Aja is just an example of how Steely Dan, for all of their perfection, fail to be perfect in the most important way.
Released: September 23, 1977