How Steely Dan Returned to Form by Remaining ‘Two Against Nature’
Steely Dan have made a career out of subverting expectations. Their warped, jazz-steeped take on the blues achieved unlikely platinum success early in the band’s career — and only increased after leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker pulled the group off the road and slowly winnowed the lineup down to a duo augmented by session players. Then, after 1980’s Gaucho LP, they fizzed out and disappeared for over a decade.
Becker and Fagen earned a reputation for being studio perfectionists with Steely Dan, and that continued during the solo years, as Fagen managed to eke out two studio LPs and a live set over an 11-year span and Becker found himself called into service as producer for a stable of clients that included Rickie Lee Jones and Fagen himself, who enlisted his partner to produce his second solo effort, 1993’s Kamakiriad. (Fagen returned the favor by producing Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack a year later.) Those projects helped pave the way for a full-fledged Dan reunion in the ’90s, but once again, the duo took a surprising left turn, focusing on a series of tours instead of returning to the studio.
The mid-’90s brought a bumper crop of “new” Steely Dan product to stores, but from the post-reunion live LP Alive in America to the Citizen Steely Dan box, it was all decidedly backward-focused. While it was nice to have Becker and Fagen working together again, it seemed as though they’d started the long backward slide into the brand of nostalgia that they’d often snarked at in their deceptively smooth, tunefully misanthropic catalog.
And then, on Feb. 29, 2000, they subverted expectations again, releasing their first new album in 20 years. Titled Two Against Nature, it managed the seemingly impossible feat of picking up pretty much exactly where Becker and Fagen left off with Gaucho: Hunched over the mixing board, exerting exacting control over airtight grooves and arrangements, still thoroughly out-of-step with prevailing trends.
“We have been fortunate enough to do something that has always been out of the mainstream and yet have an audience for what we do,” Becker told Paul Zollo during the weeks leading up to the release of Two Against Nature. “I don’t think what we are doing fits neatly into the context of what’s happening now any more than it did in the early ’70s when we started doing it. We were fortunate at that time that radio was as wide open as it was and that people doing something like what we were doing could sneak in there.”
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Needless to say, radio was quite a bit more regimented when Steely Dan returned with Two Against Nature, and although classic rock stations continued to play some of their “easier” hits (like “Reelin’ in the Years”), there was no real reason to believe the new stuff would find much of a home at any particular format. In the end, they made a new album for the same reason Steely Dan did pretty much anything else: they felt like it.
“We got to enjoy the reward for having written all those songs in the ’70s, going out and playing them and having people clap and so on,” said Becker regarding the band’s return to the road in the early ’90s. “And at the same time, after a couple of seasons, we started to get tired of playing them and thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to keep doing this, which is a lot of fun, we can’t just carry on playing our old songs as though we couldn’t write any new ones.'”
Getting back up to speed after all that time apart was easier said than done. Unlike the ’70s, when Becker and Fagen were working from a backlog of ideas every time they started on a new LP, they recommenced songwriting from scratch — and with their own legacy looming large over the idea of another Steely Dan album.
“It was an unspoken assumption between us that, if we did this, we were going to try and do something that was as dense and as well planned and has as much work and thought and quality of execution – hopefully – as the things we used to do,” Becker told Mojo. “Probably, if we’d been a bit more objective about it we’d have been a bit more worried in advance. We hope that it is good and we hope that people will like it. We thought we’d ensure that by working really hard on it. I think there’s a certain arrogance that has carried us through.”
That arrogance didn’t really do anything to increase their working speed, however. Like Gaucho, Two Against Nature came together over a period of years — but unlike the end of their first run as a recording act, the deliberate pace was more about delivering the best possible Steely Dan record rather than falling into a quixotic pursuit of perfection.
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“We don’t think of ourselves as being perfectionist, really,” insisted Fagen during a discussion with the Guardian. “To us, it’s more about desperately trying to have it sound more or less okay. We’re just trying to spruce things up a little bit for people, you know. We want to sort of tie up the loose ends. And then the next thing you know, a couple of years have gone by.”
While Steely Dan re-emerged into a very different musical landscape from the one they’d left behind with Gaucho, some things remained very much the same — including the presence of an eager audience for new music from the band. The Steely Dan revival brought accolades from critics, fans (who sent Two Against Nature all the way to No. 6 on the charts), and ultimately the band’s peers, who capped their return with four Grammys, for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Album of the Year.
Steely Dan’s Grammy cleanup definitely didn’t help the awards show’s stodgy image (they were “dad rock” before it was even a thing) but the Two Against Nature victory lap was cheering for a number of reasons – not the least of which was proof that, in an increasingly mechanical mainstream, real musicianship still mattered to some people, and that sometimes, creative partnerships can weather all sorts of storms before turning around to produce some of their best work. Even as younger recording artists, Becker and Fagen had always lived up to that album title; now they exemplified it.
“It’s really a case of us defending our generation against these demons in a certain way. It has a lot of ways you can go with it, but, okay, the two against nature are Walter and I. If the album has some kind of theme statement, perhaps that’s it,” Fagen told Mojo. “It also goes back to the blues in the sense of blues lyrics are advertisements for oneself, and we’re stating by the fact of our being artists and cognizant that we’re in a young person’s milieu still trying to get along when we’re circa 50 years old, we know you’re doing the same and we’re making a generous offer to help our listeners with their problems.”
After all that time off, and all that work to get things going again, Steely Dan neared their 30th anniversary with a surprising head of steam. But for anyone who expected a long-term commitment from the duo, Becker and Fagen were all too willing to subvert expectations again — and poke a finger in the eye of the notion that making music ought to be any kind of romantic pursuit. “Depends on the sales, really,” shrugged Fagen noncommittally when Zollo asked if Two Against Nature might lead to more Steely Dan albums. “They’re not going to let us make another one, you know, unless somebody buys it.”
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