Gaucho [Steely Dan] (1980)- Album Review

Here is a video essay companion piece, in which I talk more freely while listening to the album on a train.

Released on November 21st, 1980, Gaucho is the seventh studio album created by Steely Dan. Steely Dan isn’t a typical band, per-se, but instead a project headed by Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker. The duo began working under the name Steely Dan in the early seventies, experiencing wide success both from the critic and the consumer. Steely Dan was disbanded in 81, reuniting in 93. Walter Becker passed away on September 3rd, 2017, leaving Donald Fagen to carry the torch to this day.

                Gaucho is my favorite Steely Dan album; although not without half a million asterisks. Gaucho demonstrates a departure from the usually full-bodied and complex chords of previous outings and a move toward solid grooves and more sparse instrumentation. Not to say Gaucho is devoid of intense harmonic chemistry and experimentation, but there is a concerted effort present in Gaucho to create soundscapes and capture moods that may not be expressed well if the sound is too complex. The Album Art reflects this devotion to minimalism and complex mood in twain, featuring a moderately flat background which frames a frame which frames two figures embracing, frozen in time, dancing together. The music within, in the same way, mixes funky dance grooves, which sometimes dip into the surreal, with introspective lyricism and a dash of Motown vocal choruses, giving Gaucho an unshakable soul.

                This soul did not go unnoticed, as Gaucho won the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Non-Classical Engineered Recording. The album reached #9 on the U.S. Album Chart and was certified Platinum. “Hey Nineteen” reached #10 on the U.S. Singles Chart, and went to #1 in Canada. The album also reached #27 on the UK Albums Chart. I feel that, so far removed from its release and initial reception, Gaucho has become one of the less-discussed Steely Dan Albums. Many critics gravitate toward Aja or Can’t Buy a Thrill, both excellent in their own right but very much talked to death in critical conversation centering on Steely Dan’s discography. I hope to remedy that, even by a small margin, by discussing the seven songs featured on Gaucho in an attempt to describe why it is my favorite Steely Dan album.

                The first track off of Gaucho’s A-Side is “Babylon Sisters”, a moody and introspective song, lyrically, couched in a compelling, yet calm, beat backed by an empathetic horn section. The horn solos throughout exude a cosmopolitan dramatic flair, a story of Man vs. Self in an uncaring world. The lyrics center on the narrator growing older, as many Steely Dan songs do, and finding what once was desirable is no longer so; one could say it is the loss of the passionate disregard for one’s own well-being that comes with youth, and the inevitable growth of a desire for more investments of the heart, and the hearts of others.  A particular standout lyric for me comes in the last verse: “My friends say no don’t go/ for that cotton candy”. Steely Dan has created this beautiful metaphor for fleeting romance—something sweet and appealing, but ultimately just fluff. However, the narrator does not assign blame to the young woman of which he is spending time with, instead he asks within. This theme of introspection and realization is continued into the album with the following song, “Hey Nineteen”. 

                It is no great surprise to anyone who has heard the entirety of Gaucho that “Hey Nineteen” (the 2nd track) became the standout composition in the collection. The storytelling within the song is elevated by every single musical shift and focus adjustment contained in the instrumentation. Steely Dan’s lyricism often conveys their meaning through parabolic storytelling, allowing and requiring us to dissect the context of the narrative in order to derive more than surface meaning. “Hey Nineteen” offers a bit more surface content than most Steely Dan songs, lyrically, but has enough going on beneath to still provide something for annoying people like me. The Narrator is lamenting his inability to personally connect with the young woman he’s currently with: They dance differently, they have different interests, and the narrator even admits that they have absolutely nothing in common. Despite this, they continue seeing each other.
The instrumentation mirrors this, as the upbeat synths and plucky guitar feels very danceable, but during the transitions between verse and chorus there is an unsure pressure and mood that leads us to the chorus. Likewise, from the chorus to the verse we get no particular fanfare; we are transported back to the dance floor. We get a clear separation between the inner-monologue of the narrator and the reality of the situation, which makes the song very subtly compelling to active listeners. This awareness from the writer allows us to see the jabs of irony thrown at the narrator for being simultaneously so indulgent yet introspective, unhappy with what is happening on a personal level but giving into the desires of the flesh. The shrewd awareness of Steely Dan, demonstrated in writing, continues into the next track

                Track 3 is “Glamour Profession”, which cranks up the funky vibes with a driving rhythm and prominent bass guitar licks. The horn serves as a call-and-response for the vocals throughout the verse, overlapping as the song moves closer to the chorus, as does the occasional guitar electric riff. The piano’s feature escalates toward the instrumental break, which exposes the true lyrical intention of the song via choral vocals; “Hollywood/ I know your middle name/ who inspires your fables fools/” at which point Fagen’s lead vocals come back in to respond, “That’s my claim to fame”.

The lyrics describe what may be a drug dealer and his part in the Hollywood Talent Machine. “Glamour Profession” openly takes swings at the chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out cycle of abuse that occurs when normal, decent people (referred to directly in the song as “local boys”) get taken advantage of, often for another’s personal gain. The title itself disguises the underworldly act taking place, naming it as you may on a resume. “Why yes, I managed client transactions for an international multi-billion dollar company” bro you worked at the counter at McDonalds. This glamorizing of the unglamorous is precisely their business, and treat it like a business they will. Lyrics such as “Special delivery” “After the deal has been done”, a demonstration of the twisting of language those businesses and their associates take part in to shield themselves from morality, something we have all been witness to at one point or another. “Glamour Profession” is one of the songs that falls flat for me musically, however. I wish it grooved harder and had a bit more personality in the vocal performance by Fagen. That being said, something may be lost in the intent with those changes and it’s a fine song.

                Now we come to track 4, first track on the B-Side, the titular “Gaucho.” This is another track on this album that paints a very vivid contextual picture of the “who, what, where, when, and why.” “Gaucho” begins very subdued in its energy, opting for a much slower pace than the previous tracks on the album. The song builds and builds until it hits this beautifully full chorus, bursting with of feeling and warmth. The trumpeting in this track is perfectly complimented by the saxophone work, bringing a harsh brass tone into our ears gently on a velvet cloud of woodwind bliss.  This song transports me immediately to its world, putting me in my own chair at the Custerdome, watching this all unfold.            

The narrator is some kind of executive speaking to his lover, who has brought his “Gaucho” friend to the Custerdome, which is a fictional place created by Becker and Fagen that represents, quote, “the archetype of a building that houses great corporations.” The Gaucho can represent any kind of outsider, but in this specific instance we’re seeing the divide between corporations and the people they serve in terms of lifestyle and presumed social boundaries. But, even more so, the narrator here is romantically involved with the focus of his pain. The song implies that the lover of the narrator is constantly and unrepentantly unfaithful to him, causing him great turmoil in his personal and social circles. Even now, for the lover to be so brazen as to bring his Mister to the narrator’s place of work, the lover is actively disrespecting him. The titular Gaucho is even dressed in the lover’s clothing. “Can’t you see they’re laughing at me?” asks the narrator.

This multifaceted struggle that the narrator is going through is relatable, as nothing truly exists in a bubble, especially hardship. Even though they may have had an understanding at one point, the narrator has decided that things have gone too far, which boils over when he yells at his lover. A dreamy synth phases in and out of the composition, giving the entire track a faint dreamlike quality in a cinematic way. The slow vocal fadeout at the end feels like the bow given at the end of a brilliant performance.

                And in like a shot comes “Time out of Mind” the 5th track off of Gaucho. A driving drum beat and guitar riff lead the song, accompanied by the piano and bass guitar while the horns come in gradually, making their presence known as the song goes on. The song has an undeniable jaunt to it and feels very positive and energetic. Donald Fagen’s vocals run the show here, jive talking us into the chorus until we’re completely transfixed. The character in the song is either a drug dealer or pusher, fabricating a fantasy world in order to lure in his customers. The entire vibe of the song reminds me of “The Crocodile”, a poem written by Lewis Carrol that is recited by Alice in Chapter 2 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)–

How doth the little crocodile
  Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
  On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin
  How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
  With gently smiling jaws!

                The character in this track is spinning gold from yarn, so to speak. The chorus references several common euphemisms and turns-of-phrase that can be drawn directly back to heroin usage. For those of you who are unaware, there was an enormous heroin epidemic in the early 1980’s. The opioid-related mortality rate in the 15–44 years age range increased by nearly 14 times between 1980–198. Over the whole period, 87% of opioid-related deaths were amongst males. New York City and Southern California, where Steely Dan spent a lot of time, were hotbeds for heroin usage.   The use of heroin (among other drugs) by members of Steely Dan has been a widely covered topic and something I have no interest in discussing beyond how it influenced their music directly and indirectly, and this is one such example of direct influence.           

Mixing the harsh world of heroin junkies and the almost mythological world of alchemy and mythic beasts, combined with the upbeat tune of the song creates what I imagine to be an analog to the dichotomy of belief or emotion within a heroin addict. Heroin is often cited as one of the most blissful opiate drugs, which would surely manufacture a staggering set of highs and lows for the user. With a simple push of the plunger you can be transported to a world without pain, and when you return all that remains is pain. Heroin withdrawals don’t look much different than horrible flu-like symptoms from the outside, but blend that with some internal conflict or self-loathing and you suddenly have a reason to chase the dragon.

While the song itself, as a composition, doesn’t do that much for me (aside from the instrumental break) the context and depth it has lyrically save it from being repetitiously bland. The elevation that the contrast between the pep of the beat and the dark nature of the lyrics brings to the song as a whole cannot be understated. Even when Steely Dan isn’t breaking and making their own musical rules they can still deliver a great track.
                Into the room coolly struts the 6th track, “My Rival.” The electric piano’s synthetic organ gives us this modern-noire mood, mixed with some brilliant percussion from Ralph MacDonald and Nicholas Marrero. There a light airiness that we don’t hear a lot of in this album, and it is a welcome departure. The instruments are showcased and given time to breathe, and in turn we the listener are given time to get into the tonal depth of this song. We follow the story presented to us not only in the lyrics, but also in the composition. Everything in this song seems to trail off, even the vocals, in a blasé swagger that swings like you wouldn’t believe. The insistent pumping bass guitar by Anthony Jackson brings a funky heartbeat to this track that allows the guitarists to take note from and float around a great rhythmic foundation.

The story on this track is a fairly simple one, compared to many of Steely Dan’s euphemistic parables. The main character suspects that his partner has cheated on him, so he does some digging, hires a private detective, and finds out that they filmed their adulterous act. With this inscrutable evidence, the main character decides that it’s “stomping time” and is obviously intent on seeking revenge.  My favorite line on the track gets repeated several times throughout—“Yes, I’ll match him whim for whim.” This introduces to us that the writer of the song is aware of the brashness and rashness of both the cheater and the victim in this circumstance.

“My Rival” feels like a response to the previous track “Time Out Of Mind” in so far as the relationship between the lyrics and the composition. “My Rival” blends simple and straightforward lyricism with a very engagingly complex composition, creating a catchy, funky, and groovy listening experience. The chill tone “My Rival” lends itself better to the storytelling, which is fairly linear in comparison to the slice-of-life storytelling in “Time Out Of Mind”. Having these two songs next to each other in the context of the album brings a lot of extra depth that may not be apparent on an isolated listening experience. Tracks 5 and 6 off of “Gaucho” are a perfect example of why albums should be experienced in their entirety for complete context.

                The 7th and final track is an absolute masterpiece and a masterclass of execution in relation to the tone and mood of “Gaucho” as a whole. “Third World Man” begins as a dark, moody track and maintains a lot that energy throughout, sprinkling small fills of hopeful bright notes that are quickly extinguished by the moody pressure of the synthesizer’s drone. The instrumentation is a little sparser than in other tracks, but to truly great tonal effect. “Third World Man” takes the moody introspection of “Babylon Sisters”, the lyrical content complexity of “Hey 19” and “Time Out of Mind”, the tonal range of “Gaucho”, the compositional complexity of “My Rival”, and the bright vocals from “Glamour Professional” in the chorus to cap off “Gaucho” in the ideal way. “Third World Man” barely even fits into any pre-established genre of music, even for Steely Dan, utilizing blues and rock guitar riffs with moody funk and harmonization.

The “Third World Man” that the song refers to is an archetypal kind of person, as identified by Fagen and Becker. The archetypal person featured is the kind of person who engages in conspicuous concern, in which their goal is to let everyone know they care about issues (be them political, humanitarian, or otherwise) but do not contribute to the solving of these issues in any meaningful way. This, in the modern culture of 2020, is referred to as Virtue Signaling. Forty years before this review was written, forty years before the global political hellhole we are in now, Steely Dan was calling out people for taking advantage of the suffering of others for personal gain. The lyrics directly contrast the struggle of those who are actually experiencing the hardship in countries of lesser fortune to the comfy position of those fortunate souls who have a fistful of fifties and a day without fear. The chorus jabs at the “Third World Man”, saying that once he gets past his emotional kneejerk reaction he will revert to being as indifferent as before. There is no inherent value in feeling pity or sorrow unless you take action.
                What an incredible way to finish off the album. Lesser bands would put a hip-shaker at the end; in the hopes that people will leave and come back with positive feelings. Steely Dan does not care about you walking away feeling good, they care about you walking away feeling something profound or important. They want you to engage with their music, take the good with the bad, and then look within yourself and allow yourself to explore places you many not normally.

                Steely Dan has always been the musician’s musicians, appealing to those who are looking for more than what the typical structure of music, especially popular music. In a time of hedonistic hair-metal and sycophantine synthpop, Steely Dan stood atop the mountain and made real music for real people living in the real world.                

In the words of Mark Twain- “When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo.”

Brendan C. Bush, Co-Creator and Contributor at Heck Media

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