Put a couple of decades on the protagonist of “Lush Life,” put him on the West Coast with some other wicked habits, and you’d come up with something like “Babylon Sisters,” from Steely Dan’s final masterpiece, Gaucho. A commercial success but critical dud at the time of its release, Gaucho has grown in stature, but still it lingers in the shadow of its forebear, Aja. Gaucho, though, is the perfect extension of Aja, a further distillation of Steely Dan’s trajectory towards its God-in-the-details hybrid of jazz and rock. Its slow, studied strut, coupled with a bell-clear production, supports the record’s stories of 70s California decadence, delivered in Donald Fagen’s most pronounced ironic drawl. Drug use and sketchy sexual adventure are linked to characters who are too old, too rich, too emotionally distant, and even so the oily discomfort they evoke is dispelled by the deeply funky, freewheeling grooves — courtesy of such players as Bernard Purdie, Mark Knopfler, Chuck Rainey, Joe Sample, Rick Derringer, the Brecker brothers, Don Grolnick, Larry Carlton, and on and on — and the sense that this is sharp character study and cool observation. “Babylon Sisters,” the album’s opener, cycles through first, second, and third person, appearing on its face to be an old dude telling the story of his hookup with (perhaps more than one) much younger woman, with veiled references to cocaine or meth use, but other voices intrude, those of the women and also those of his friends, the latter warning him away from a life that he himself recognizes is beyond him. As in many of Steely Dan’s songs, narrative clarity isn’t the point as much as the delivery of the words with the music, an impressionistic approach which brings a dark tonality, towards sadness, to the characters in “Babylon Sisters” and to Gaucho as a whole. It’s less Hotel California and that album’s obvious metaphors, and more the tricky psych-scape of film noir L.A., set even more ominously to music that is bright and sunny and colorful, with a distinct slither. Classic Rock’s Less Than Zero.
*Above image, detail of Israel Hoffman’s Guardia Vieja, used for the cover of Gaucho.