The Definitive Collection

Steely Dan

Known for their perfectionism in the recording studio, Steely Dan front men Walter Becker and Donald Fagen also appear to be perfectionists of the greatest hits collection. The Definitive Collection is the group’s fifth such release (not including the box set Citizen Steely Dan), and generally covers the same ground as its precursors. We’re given the predictable selection of radio and cult hits, including “Do It Again,” “Bodhisattva,” “Kid Charlemagne,” and the title song from the film FM. The album has mainly served to promote the group’s recent summer tour, and to highlight their last two studio recordings (albeit with only one song from each).

So this release is more a redundant retread than a “definitive collection,” like Steely Dan itself is more a generous duo than a consistent band. Becker and Fagen — dubbed “Starkweather and Manson” in their days as backup musicians — established the eccentric rock-fusion outfit as their own vehicle, with others invited along for the ride. Their career and works all hinge on some degree of irony — be it their pop styling colored with a disdainful view of mainstream sensibilities, or a career-spanning collection that accounts for a 20-year hiatus.

Of course, the two have always been too smart and cynical for the pop music scene they slyly infiltrated. Their agreeable melodies often mask layers of tireless and eccentric musicianship, provided at times by such esteemed jazz players as Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott and Steve Gadd. Their lyrics brim with obscure references and often echo their disillusionment with success. As the song “Deacon Blues” waxes on the youthful vision of musical immortality, it inserts the deflated plea, “I want a name when I lose.” Even behind the MOR leanings of the hit “Hey Nineteen” lurks the duo’s lament of losing touch with a culture in slow decay.

The tracks here have been digitally remastered and all are well deserving of such treatment. All told, however, The Definitive Collection feels like a frivolous reminiscence of a group hopefully many years away from its final bow. This could be seen as a shrewd marketing ploy from Geffen Records, but I’d like to see the superfluity of this release as Steely Dan’s comment on the inevitable excess of the industry they have begrudgingly endured. Why expect any less from a group named after a dildo?

~ Galen Howard

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