June 2006

Donald Fagen - Morph the Cat
Reprise 49975-2
Format: CD
Released: 2006

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

For more than 30 years, Steely Dan (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) have made music that is unique for its combination of harmonic sophistication and pop accessibility. Although Fagen and Becker don’t write songs that can be thought of strictly as jazz, there are strong jazz elements in their work. Their talent has been to write great melodies and lyrics that appeal to the mind as much as to the ear. They also pay close attention to how their work is recorded, which makes it a treat for audiophiles.

Of the two, Donald Fagen has had the more artistically and commercially successful solo career. His new disc, Morph the Cat, doesn’t have the immediate appeal of his previous two, The Nightfly (1982) and Kamakiriad (1993), but repeated listening reveals emotional depth and musical subtlety, and the songs soon lodge themselves in your mind. At 58, Fagen seems to be thinking about mortality. He speaks to Ray Charles’ ghost on "What I Do" and has some imaginary encounters with death in "Brite Nightgown." A dark undercurrent runs through Morph the Cat, and it captures the unsettling feelings of life in a post-September 11 world.

Fagen doesn’t despair, however. Morph the Cat is filled with witty, sometimes inscrutable wordplay and, most of all, with a deep well of funkiness. The band is, as expected, sharp and elegant, with special honors going to drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddie Washington, and guitarist John Herington. Beautifully recorded, with songs that grow and deepen with each listen, Morph the Cat leaves you hoping Fagen won’t wait another 13 years to make a solo record.