Morph the Cat
t the end of 1980’s Gaucho you’ll find Steely Dan’s best song—the slow fade of Johnny, the protagonist of “Third World Man.” The denizen of a prosperous coastal city, hidden in a room which hasn’t seen sunlight in months: enervated, willing himself to die, smothered as layer upon layer of guitar lines, metronomic drumming, and multi-tracked bleating settles over his corpse like silt over a crustacean. Johnny should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas; he’s an outcast, his lot indistinguishable from that of the hundred thousand brown-skinned valets, gardeners, and rough trade taking the bus that morning.
Donald Fagen’s voice—in this instance a smirk so contorted with irony that it has no choice but to revert to empathy—is key here. Burying his cynicism with Johnny, he reconstituted himself on 1982’s The Nightfly as a hip nostalgist, thus demonstrating that a cynic is always a closeted nostalgist. Apparently Fagen gets gooey only on his solo work; his two recent Steely Dan records showcased the jolly lech who snaps at vowels like a turtle at lettuce. On Morph the Cat, only the third album to bear his name, he returns to lavishing a fantasy world with all the supple snap of the considerable arranging and recording prowess at his command; a world in which discrete note upon discrete note unfurls for your audio pleasure until their mephitic fumes lull you into catatonia.
As poses cynicism and romanticism have their uses, especially when smart alecks like Fagen and collaborator Walter Becker chronicle every one of their permutations with the zeal of sadists on the Dan’s middle-period albums (roughly, Pretzel Logic through The Royal Scam). But Morph the Cat is too complacent, too enamored with its own lacquered contours. Fagen isn’t singing about Johnny anymore: he’s become Johnny, saved by a helpful skim through The Power of Now, he and his new girlfriend safe in their Great Pagoda of Funn, where, he says, “we make up our own storyline.” At least the duet between the muted trumpet and melancholy saxophones in that pagoda song evinces attrition of a kind; that house of light in which Fagen and his companion are interred must have wild parties on the upper floors.
Morph the Cat maintains the determined stasis of an Eno ambient, its pulse as unacquainted with hypertension as a masseuse’s. It’s some kind of achievement to record the most inert dialogue-with-Brother-Ray ever recorded (“What I Do”); didn’t Fagen remember that Pepsi commercial from the early ‘90s? The clean, disgusting funk of “Brite Nitegown” deserves special praise too. “Security Joan” summons some of the old “Hey Nineteen” lubriciousness. The spectre of Johnny darkens the chorus glissandos of “The Night Belongs To Mona,” until it engulfs the rest of the record.
Hating Fagen’s album means it actually bestirred passion. Listening to the eighteenth electric piano run and those fucking drums pitter-pattering like Moe Tucker supporting Spyro Gyra dulled my nerves. Morph the Cat is the ideal answer record to people like my buddy Jose, who upon hearing the first minute of “Kid Charlemagne” in his car snarled, “What is this dentist-office bullshit?” He’s right. Steely Dan circa 1980 is perfect dentist-office bullshit. The cheerful receptionist whistling “Hey Nineteen” just before she ushers you in for your root canal plays right into the dentist’s hands: you’ll think twice about not flossing before returning anytime soon. Glistening and immobile, Morph the Cat reveals that Johnny was the dentist after all, and what he thought in 1980 was crippling ennui was merely sunstroke. Air conditioning rocks.