Steely Dan - Aja - Review
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critics' view

If ever a record knew its worth, it was Aja, the sixth album by Steely Dan. Released in late 1977 when half the world seemed to be down the disco and the other half were pogo-ing, here came an album that oozed detached sophistication, using every trick that keyboard player and vocalist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker had mastered over their first decade together.

Following on from 1976's The Royal Scam, any notion of Steely Dan being ‘a band’ had gone, with a huge stream of well over 40 highly skilled session musicians creating textures to support Becker and Fagen's musical vision. As a result, you get a masterclass in laidback solos and awkward time signatures, all beneath a highly polished surface.

At the time of the album’s release, Fagen said, "We write the same way a writer of fiction would write. We're basically assuming the role of a character, and for that reason it may not sound personal." Becker added, "This is not The Lovin’ Spoonful. It's not real good-time music." It’s true – these seven tracks are like miniature works of fiction, paying no mind to length or rock convention.

Aja was (is) a very influential work. In Scotland Ricky Ross heard the song Deacon Blues and named his band after it, while Peg is widely known because of De La Soul’s sampling of it for Eye Know. The jaunty Josie and the sublime title-track are further stand-outs on a record that barely breaks its bossa-nova beat. It is impossible to hear this record without thinking about LA sunshine, even though Fagen's lyrics were often nostalgic, ironic and bitter; hardly suspiring for a group that named itself after a – ahem – marital aid from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

To complete the feeling that you were holding an old jazz album in your hands, the original pressings came in a gatefold sleeve with a note from ABC Records’ president Steve Diener and the mock reverential critique by ‘Michael Phalen’: "In this writer’s opinion, Aja signals the onset of a new maturity and a kind of solid professionalism that is the hallmark of an artist that has arrived." Phalen was, of course, Becker and Fagen.

To emphasize its importance, in 2011 Aja was deemed by the Library of Congress to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" and added to the United States National Recording Registry. But with or without such an accolade, Aja remains a remarkable piece of work.

Daryl Easlea
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading. external-link.png

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