|Having discreetly disbanded at the dawn of the MTV era, the 1970s' most stubbornly faceless pop subversives returned after 19 years with their first new studio album, followed in short order by this stunning long-form video project. Part concert, part documentary, Steely Dan: Two Against Nature offers a savvy cross-section of both old and new material performed by the latest incarnation of the formidable stage bands that founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have assembled for the periodic tours unleashed since their early '90s concert reunion. True to form, they preside over immaculately arranged, flawlessly executed performances that confirm the Dan's state-of-the-art standards, then undercut that achievement with devilish audience sound bites and their own faux cable-access interviews, as if to debunk their artistry with a blast of anticelebrity.
For hardcore Dan fans (including this reviewer), Becker and Fagen long ago distanced themselves from rock culture, their music steeped more in '50s jazz and rhythm & blues, and their lyrics pitched to a darker, funnier world-view divorced from youth culture and self-congratulatory rock personae. Fagen, with his close-cropped hair, austere beard, tinted glasses, and prominent incisors resembles a pale, vampiric Ray Charles as he huddles over his keyboards and croons those dangerous lyrics. His partner's longer locks and steel-rimmed glasses reinforce the spectre of a postbop Franz Schubert who's traded clavichords for custom electric guitars--a studious image reinforced by his dry, articulate gibes in the interviews, if undercut by the twisted imagery and shadowy, second-person perspectives pervasive in the band's lyrics (like the music, written by both men, but conspicuously shaped by Becker).
The material hews to the group's later albums recorded after they downsized the band into a de facto studio laboratory and dialed up the jazz accents, with understandable showcases for the sneaky new songs on the Two Against Nature album: sleek, seductive songs about incest, midlife crises, pyromania, designer drugs, and other fun stuff. Sonically, the performances are as meticulously recorded and mixed as the duo's albums, with the performance footage beautifully shot and edited. We'd knock director Earle Sebastian for a few too many tilted camera angles, but then we might have to wait another 19 years for the next one. --Sam Sutherland