Similes: Jazz Rock
“Yet Gaucho is more than a good laugh or a twinge of recognition. If you leave a question hanging long enough, it becomes practically metaphysical. (Are you with me, Dr. Wu?) And that’s a loophole big enough to let the angels in.” – Rolling Stone review of Steely Dan’s Gaucho
“His understated humor is intact, but Kaputt is no joke. It would be far too easy for Bejar to simply poke fun at so many swishy synths, lounge-lizard inflections, and cruise-ship bass lines, but he does something much tougher here. He redeems them” – Pitchfork review of Destroyer’s Kaputt
Nearly every review of Kaputt devotes at least a paragraph to assuring readers of the album’s sincere post-ironic stance: it’s ok to smirk, but know that they’re serious. Many reviewers celebrate the cool sincerity of Destroyer’s appropriation of saxophones and synths from the smooth jazz-rock loving era of the early 80s: “Here, Dan [Bejar] just sounds carefree; like he just doesn’t care. What makes this album amazing is that he really doesn’t…It is a mighty, mighty piece of work and really worth celebrating.” And we’re ok with this. After all, this is the so-called era of Retromania–everything old is new again because nothing “new” is being created.
However, what strikes me is that even in 1981, Ariel Swartley, who reviewed Gaucho for Rolling Stone, was clearly aware that Steely Dan were not only more than just the sum of their pop, jazz, and rock idioms, they were remarkably self-conscious. In other words, we tend to laugh at Steely Dan because we assume from our 21st century, Retromania-enlightened position that they are being unknowingly earnest–which, let’s face it, unknowing earnestness can be hilarious. Steely Dan were creating something new by consciously appropriating and combining ridiculous riffs and sounds, and their success lies in their ability to use those sounds to create a space between irony and earnestness by, as Swartley contends, perfecting the “aesthetic of the tease.” Unintelligible lyrics, saxophone solos, “potentially passionate outbursts,” all serve to create an atmosphere of paranoiac (un)meaning. Are they serious? Are they joking? Sometimes it’s just easier to laugh than to understand.
Steely Dan and Destroyer are asking you to do both. Understand that they’re winking, but understand that they’re completely serious.