Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)
First there was a so-what single — 1972’s “Dallas” b/w “Sail The Waterway,” both denied Greatest Hits throw-in status and Citizen Steely Dan box set enshrinement — and then, very shortly afterwards, there was The Arrival. It’s not out of the question to call Can’t Buy A Thrill one of the decade’s best debut albums, even in an era where LPs were not only expected to trump singles but be exhaustively comprehensive portfolios in themselves. But the three songs that made the top tier of their repertoire — “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work,” and “Reelin’ in the Years” — are bolstered by a bunch of deep cuts that run the gamut from good (the anti-escapist mutant bossa “Only A Fool Would Say That”) to staggering (lost souls anthem “Midnite Cruiser”). For a record that holds the weight of so many formative components later lost — chief amongst them the presence of lead vocalist David Palmer, whose delicately pained warmth on “Dirty Work” is one of the band’s most human moments — everything that comes after Can’t Buy A Thrill still feels rooted somewhere in its counterculture-hangover vibe.
And while the record’s distinct themes of weariness, monomania, and displacement haven’t been widely attributed to the Death of the Sixties, it sure reads like it. “Dirty Work” is the upper-middle-class take on free love — which goes hand-in-hand with surreptitious infidelity and unshakeable guilt (“I foresee terrible trouble/And I stay here just the same”). “Kings” is given the deadpan annotation “No political significance” on the back of the sleeve, but whether or not Good King Richard is Nixon and Good King John is Kennedy, there’s no blaming anyone who hears a heartfelt, timely protest in the line “While he plundered far and wide/All his starving children cried/And though we sung his fame/We all went hungry just the same.” (’72 was a memorably feverish election year, after all.) “Do It Again,” rendered dizzying and alien and archly beautiful thanks to electric sitar (Denny Dias) and cheapie plastic combo organ (Fagen), is Kipling’s “If” turned into Sisyphus clusterfuck, an ellipsis at the end of a sentence about the futility of trying to force change no matter how busted you wind up without it. That, not the innocuous travelin’-man ballad “Dallas,”was their breakthrough single, a bizarro jazz-funk crossover/near-instant standard (see: fusioneer Deodato; Philly soulster Charles Mann; micropress funk obscurities Deep Heat); imagine the context where an ode to recidivism grabs the pulse of a nation and there’s your first step to making Steely Dan famous.
Plus, holy damn, can we take a moment to give it up for “Reelin’ in the Years”? If you want to hold up the Dan as top-tier songwriters, there is no beating “You been tellin’ me you’re a genius since you were seventeen/In all the time I’ve known you I still don’t know what you mean” for the way it scans, the up-front simplicity, and how brutally, hilariously cold it is. And the old “Don and Walt and some friends in the studio” perception of the band’s makeup doesn’t quite do justice to the fact that the hired hands they brought on were capable of astounding feats both technical and emotional; Elliott Randall’s guitar solos (rumored to be Jimmy Page’s all-time favorite) use virtuoso wailing in the service of jabbing, wiseassed, gleefully sharp-witted antagonism — strings played like a saxophone. And, unlike the later years’ borderline-Kubrickian multi-take perfectionism, it took him just two run-throughs to get it down perfect; the only reason it required that many is because the assistant engineer forgot to hit “record” on the first one. Sometimes things just clicked for them — best of all when they were still figuring out how to click in the first place.