DONALD FAGEN The Nightfly
1 I.G.Y (International Geophysical Year) 6:05 (UK single)
2 Green Flower Street 3:40
3 Ruby Baby 5:38
4 Maxine 3:50
5 New Frontier 6:23
6 The Nightfly 5:45
7 The Goodbye Look 4:47
8 Walk Between Raindrops 2:38
There must have been something in the air around L.A. in 1982, as the likes of Joni Mitchell, Don Henley and Fleetwood Mac all released albums or recorded songs that in some way drew upon the America of the 1950s and/or their experiences growing up in that era.
Joni went right back to the Chinese Cafe of her teens, where they sat around talking boys while the jukebox played 78s, and covered Elvis’ (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care on her 1982 LP. Don Henley’s Johnny Can’t Read was a rock’n’roll pastiche typical of the early Eighties, as was the minimalist sleeve of the album “I Can’t Stand Still” with its kitchen full of post-war appliances. As for the Mac, the jauntily retro Oh Diane from Mirage speaks for itself. The ever-restless Neil Young, meanwhile, actually formed a new, rockabilly band The Shocking Pinks for one album in 1983.
In such a climate of reminiscence and retro leanings, the debut solo album by Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen fitted in perfectly.
The Nightfly, from its sleeve imagery to the sense of romanticism (both ideological and personal), feels like a love-letter to the world of his youth (the notes contained within state dryly: “the songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late 1950s and early 1960s, i.e. one of my general height, weight and build“).
The wiseguy cynicism and droll humour that was such an integral part of Steely Dan’s perceived style is replaced with something a bit more human and innocent. The tunes are also really, really good.
I.G.Y. – which was a real-life “international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world’s scientists” during 1957 and 1958 – is upbeat and positive without resorting to smart-arse irony. New Frontier is classic Fagen, built around a neat chord change and a cool, propulsive rhythm. His cover of the Libeber & Stoller classic Ruby Baby is classy and affectionate, with a looser swing than usual. Maxine is his own (successful) attempt to evoke the same vibe.
According to Wikipedia, in 2007 The Wall Street Journal called The Nightfly “one of pop music’s sneakiest masterpieces.” They are absolutely spot-on.