Perfection in Pop: Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ turns 45

Aja, Steely Dans magnus opus, turns 45.

Courtesy of ABC Records

“Aja,” Steely Dan’s magnus opus, turns 45.

Will Baska, Staff Writer

I must admit it – I like yacht rock. There is no replacing that ‘70s sound, tacky but smooth, soft yet infectious. It’s a genre that has received heavy criticism over the years, along with its fair share of parody. Still, nothing gets me going quite like that commercial sound, transporting me to a new reality. 

Pacific waters, a sea breeze caressing my shoulders, the warm sun tanning my legs. I can hear mustachioed, balding men wailing in praise of all the finest decadent pleasures; all the big-haired love interests they longed for. There’s nothing quite like it, and despite the critical response much of the genre receives, its legacy will always thrive with its accessible style.

With this being said, there is a particular yacht rock record that simply doesn’t carry the same degree of ignominy, whether it be by critics or the general public. It is a record that showed the world how the boundaries of pop music could be pushed to new limits. Its enticing use of perfectionist jazz production and impassioned melodical delivery gives it an air that can only be described as revolutionary. 

The album is rare in the way it elicits an entirely unique response from the listener, one that cannot be fabricated. It’s pop music, sure, but the vision that led to the LP portrays a degree of accessible genius in the musical world. It’s something new. The album is Steely Dan’s 1977 seminal release “Aja.” It turned 45 today, and as I enter my senior year chasing journalistic excellence, I could not think of a better classic record to review.

Steely Dan came into existence in 1967, when two aspiring musicians, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, met at Bard College. They quickly became infatuated with each other’s style, and from there it was history. The group was known to jam out incessantly, playing a distinctive style of pop, filled with a cool jazz influence and esoteric collegiate lyricism. 

It didn’t take long for the band to make it. In 1972, the band released its first album, “Can’t Buy A Thrill.” The album was both a commercial and critical success, leading the group to national fame and abundant radio play. From there, it released four more albums in four years. With each record, the band expanded on its sound, incorporating various abstruse elements while maintaining their poppy approach. 

By 1977, the band was composed of two well-seasoned musicians, and more importantly, master producers. They had become well known in the music industry as strict perfectionists, implementing an impressive strain of musical vigor into every track. With each song came a new pantheon of accomplished musicians on a variety of different instruments, using their special talent to elevate every last note. It was the time in their career to flourish into an utterly groundbreaking plane, a grand experiment to see the band come into a state of sonic serenity. That time came.

The album’s introduction “Black Cow,” is a more than appropriate track to kick off the LP. It starts with an ear catching twinkle of a guitar note followed by a thick bass riff that maintains its booming prominence throughout the song, like a strong hip-hop sample, making sure the listener begins to bob their head in a slick rhythm. The lead singer, Fagen, enters the track suitably with his textbook ‘70s voice, slightly sardonic, telling an enigmatic tale of depravity. The melody is maintained with wonderful instrumentation, along with the alluring female background vocals complimenting Fagen’s croons. The song breaks into chorus with a simple yet profound arrangement of brass that twists adequately with the smooth pop arrangements. About halfway through the tune, the rhythm cleanly transitions into a catchy piano solo. The ivories carry a low hum, bringing an ethereal neon buzz to the track that just screams jazz. The song fades into the next with more impressive brass instrumentation, this time with a loud and glaring tenor sax solo. 

The second tune, “Aja,” also serves as the longest. The track opens with yet another impressive arrangement of guitar, piano and drums. As Fagen breaks into song, the cooler, more mysterious nature of Steely Dan goes on full display with its use of reticent minor notes and glossy instrumentation. The song sweeps into swing very quickly though, as the band controls a higher tempo with the glory of various quirky instruments. Fagen sings of Aja (pronounced Asia) and relates to the subject matter with the use of sounds that twinkle in the cadence of a glowing Oriental city. 

The song continues with powerful breaks that bring the listener back to that illustrious rock and roll, all while maintaining studio excellence. Tension continues to build before the listener is fully engrossed in the jazzy erudition of the track, as an intense saxophone solo plays wonderfully with an endless explosion of drums, dancing sinuously in a sort of symbiotic waltz that could only have spawned from the evolving matter of the tune. The track goes on to repeat itself a bit, ending with the ultimate climax, a ridiculous drum solo. It erupts in an earnest shower of meticulously placed hits, beckoning a warm and incredulous auditory stupor, as if it was an impressive firework display. 

The third track, “Deacon Blues,” opens yet again with a short and ear provoking arrangement of polished instrumentation. The song follows a simple melody at first, led by the thick voyaging of the bass and the enchanting twinkles of night among the city. It is smooth and catchy, effortlessly leading to a satiating chorus, as Fagen delivers every last idiosyncratic line with an affectionate tone that bleeds despair in the extended crows of his voice. The track continues in stride for some time, capping out after seven minutes of tune. 

The next song, “Peg,” is initiated with an utterly alluring concoction of brass, bringing an excitable climactic charm to kick off the track. The song quickly goes into a captivating rhythm, essentially forcing the listener to break into dance. For the first time in the album, Fagen’s vocals render with an overwhelming sense of joviality, capitalizing on the ear candy melody that sleekly glides through the duration of the track like a jet cutting through the sky. 

The tune maintains this sweet pop-rock sentiment into the chorus, where the wonderfully conducted instrumentation meets with Fagen’s ecstatic shouts to perpetuate the melody while expediting the track into a proper zenith. About halfway through the song, a simple yet magnificent guitar solo coruscates into the main chord progression, lingering, leaving yet another infectious ear worm to manifest comfortably in the listener’s brain. The song continues with its simple and unflagging pace, eventually fading into obscurity. To me, “Peg” is just about the perfect pop song, and perhaps one of my favorite songs of all time. It is simple, yet the extravagant perfectionist approach to the track makes it a simple and pure pleasure, a blast of auditory euphoria that will surely brighten the day.

 The fifth track, “Home At Last,” greets the listener with a powerful piano line that instantly paves its way into the brain. The song is classic Steely Dan, filled with silky string use and powerful brass. The band just knows how to hold a tune and with diligent effort, every last tension builder and drum fill is executed with an almost smug credence that shows unfathomable talent. Near the end of the song, a cool and controlled guitar solo sharply pierces into the track, with each note gleaming proudly like the flicker of a candle. 

The sixth tune, “I Got The News,” starts off with perhaps the most recondite intro, utilizing a perplexing jumble of piano and commanding drums. This does not in any way mean the track is inaccessible, as Fagen’s voice reminds the listener just how much of a pop juggernaut the band really is. The song never evolves into anything extraordinary, but succeeds at presenting a simple yet thought-provoking piece of avant-pop that will surely have the listener tapping their feet to the eccentric rhythm. 

The last song,”Josie,” opens with an isolated yet authoritative guitar riff that evokes a distant psychedelic sound. Like most of the tracks before it, the song evolves into a funk-like rhythm that persists without falter throughout the track. A little after halfway through, a clean blues-like guitar solo usurps the momentum of the song. Complimented by the whimsical use of drums, the instrumental break’s unique nature suffices quite well as a natural summit of the record. The song (and the album) ends with that same funky cadence, leaving the listener with another jazzy jive that the LP forces a welcomed familiarity with.

“Aja” is an album that is simply unforgettable. It is a prolific record in the way that it is hard to argue that it is anything but excellence. The way each song is so punctiliously detailed exudes an inconceivable amount of both talent and hard work. It is an album that sounds like it could not have been made any other way — an album with a vision. It is rare that one discovers a piece of art like that, an unflagging perception that produces genius to every last detail, almost divinely conceived. At the end of the day, it’s just a good old fashioned yacht rock album, with every sweet dreamy chord and pop melody. To me, this record is excellent, and if you don’t think so, perhaps tell your friends about it. Besides, “I know they’re gonna love it.”