By the time The Nightfly was released, in 1982, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the creative core of Steely Dan, had gone their separate ways. 1980’s Gaucho was their last record for 20 years, and given Becker’s personal troubles at the time, it made sense that at least half of the band was burnt out. The creative juices continued to flow for Fagen, though, as his debut solo record arrived nearly a year after The Dan’s split. The Nightfly could be mistaken for a Steely Dan record, as all the core elements (meticulous production, smooth R&B arrangements, dozens of session musicians, Fagen’s wry lyrics) were intact; the big difference is the nostalgic sheen across the album’s eight songs, which gives the album less of an acidic edge than Fagen’s earlier work, at least
The liner notes state: “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.” The autobiographical nature of the album is evident not only in the lyrics (especially on the title track, “I.G.Y.,” and “Green Flower Street”), but also in the music. While Steely Dan focused on the much-maligned “jazz-rock,” The Nightfly favors R&B-based grooves over the occasionally fussy arrangements that earned the group its fair share of detractors.
Fagen, a jazz and blues fan, can really go on about music theory, and it’s all interesting to watch, especially if you geek out over the chord progression of “Peg” (if you’re reading this far, you probably do). On The Nightfly, though, the music adheres to a basic R&B format, complete with horns, smooth keys, and Fagen’s storytelling prowess. Instead of singing about losers and aging hipsters, as songs like “Deacon Blues” and “Hey Nineteen” masterfully demonstrate, The Nightfly looks back on the unbridled optimism of the post-WWII Eisenhower years. Opener “I.G.Y.” speaks of “that wheel in space” and taking an underwater train in “ninety minutes from New York to Paris.” The lyrics are ridiculous, of course, and the character of “I.G.Y.” could be an early incarnation of the guy who later says, “I want a name when I lose […], Call me Deacon Blues.”
The genius of The Nightfly is the surface level about-face that Fagen pulls, as it’s hard to tell if the album is to be taken as is, or if we should be looking for subtle hints at its meaning. “Green Flower Street” and “Ruby Baby” play it straight, musically and lyrically, as both are standalone groovy tunes that advance the narrative of the liner notes. As with many of Steely Dan’s best, it’s easy to get lost in the blues and jazz structures of each tune, but the real treat is listening again and again, picking up new lyrics you hadn’t caught before.
Not surprisingly, Fagen’s solo material interlocks with Steely Dan’s late-70s work to the point that you can be forgiven the assumption that The Nightfly is a solo album in name only. In a way, The Nightfly caps off the Dan’s legendary run, and even though Fagen and Steely Dan have released new records in the 30 years since, their role in 2016 is to play the hits to the aging Baby Boomer crowd. I’m still waiting for Steely Dan to put out one last great record, but they seem content with collecting their paychecks. Thankfully, their catalog hasn’t grown stale over time, and with each listen, albums like The Nightfly gain in strength and cement their status as essential records.