Listening again to the now forty-year-old Gaucho (released 11/21/80), it should come as no surprise this final album from the early phase of Steely Dan’s career is the complete antithesis of the kitschy fascination with the Eighties that’s evolved since its release at the outset of the decade. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker saw THAT coming back in 1976 with an appropriately titled The Royal Scam and for their next project, the pair enlist a long roster of musicians to provide the soundtracks to pieces of noir-tinged cinema in song populated with borderline macabre characters.
If the wordplay of the two authors defies comprehension or literal interpretation, that’s probably intentional. There are cases like “Glamour Profession” where Fagen’s lead vocals sound like another instrument in the dense arrangement of multiple keyboards, horns, guitar, bass, and drums. And the solid unity of which musicianship is all the more remarkable given the fastidious approach to recording he and Becker demanded; not surprisingly, the sound also ends up right at the threshold of sterile from cut to cut (depending on the arrangers?).
Of course, that’s a criticism applied increasingly frequently to previous Steely Dan albums, going back to Katy Lied. Yet in retrospect, this seventh album almost perfectly embodies the icy detachment of the decade notable for the embrace of disco music and the ‘greed is good’ ethos. Forget for a moment the abject pity the songwriters bestow upon the speaker in “Hey Nineteen.” Gaucho is all about innate self-preservation in the midst of almost morbid self-indulgence. Why else the protracted two-year period it took to complete the album or the litany of some forty-plus names involved in the recording?
It’s indicative of Fagen and Becker’s obsessive compulsions that only a portion of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler’s recorded guitar solo appears during “Time Out Of Mind?”And the (over-) extensive effort expended to mix the album is something else altogether. Yet that aspect of the project is at least somewhat more understandable given that, by this time, impeccable sonics had become a hallmark of Steely Dan albums. It only stands to reason then, that for the sake of the 2000 reissue, original engineer Roger Nichols deigned to (re-) work the audio; as originally produced by Gary Katz, mixed by Elliot Scheiner and mastered by of Bob Ludwig, the sound quality compels close listening even as the unfolding stories such as “Third World Man.” become populated with characters alternately unsavory, repulsive or both.
If the latter scenario depicting a shadowy figure who’s been ‘mobilized since dawn’ and is now ‘crouching on the lawn,’ doesn’t sound familiar, then the listener probably hasn’t been following current events in late 2020 as citizen militias become ever more prominent on our cultural landscape. The latent danger in the scenes of that song–distractions from which come from disparate sources as Rick Derringer’s knife-like guitar and the almost reptilian air emanating from Randy Brecker’s flugelhorn—are a mirror image of the utopian fantasy “Time Out of Mind: ” upon reflection, this ever-so-slightly bittersweet number may represent that very point the Steely Dan concept ran out of ideas (until the two principals’ reunion in 2000 for Two Against Nature). This now forty-year-old album might well have ended on that deceptively upbeat note if the dual mindset of Fagen and Becker wasn’t so preternaturally contrary to its core (contrary to the level of healthily-detached bemusement they evince in their liner notes for the record’s aforementioned reissue).
Which is wholly in line with the timeline as well as all the resources expended to finish Gaucho. In order to maximize potential sales, the label would set release at the height of that year’s holiday season and also take the extra step to affix a higher retail price point to this Steely Dan record. In doing so, it would encounter legal action from the ‘band,’ but that was not the only such instance: jazz icon Keith Jarrett would claim plagiarism for this title song post-issue.
What turned out to be the last Steely Dan studio album for twenty-years eventually won a Grammy for its engineering and also made the Top Ten on the commercial front. The former achievement duplicated similar recognition for its 1977 predecessor Aja, but the latter milestone constituted a slight shortfall, that mercenary comparison a reflection of the almost but not quite imperceptible flagging of Fagen and Becker’s imagination within the work itself.