Two Against Nature Turns 20

Two Against Nature Turns 20

Much like the current Democratic Primary, the 2001 Grammys were an all-out generational war. The battle for Album Of The Year pitted Boomer favorites like Steely Dan and Paul Simon against the reigning critical darlings of Gen X: Radiohead, Eminem, and Beck, whose horned-up Prince tribute Midnite Vultures could never light up a Grammy voter’s pleasure center the way the 30%-more-boring Morning Phase did 14 years later. The Grammy went to Steely Dan, for Two Against Nature — the comeback album that consummated the duo’s unlikely second wind in the early 2000s.

Then there was the contest for Best Pop Vocal Album, a category as pointless then as it is now. Its incoherent parameters dictated that Steely Dan and Don Henley go up against millennial pop juggernauts like NSYNC and Britney Spears. That Grammy went to Steely Dan.

So did the Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. Oh, and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. Make that Four Against Nature.

Call it Revenge Of The Boomers. I suspect this moment — the sight of two smug jazz-rock nerds collecting their Grammy from Stevie Wonder as Radiohead and Beck went home nearly empty-handed — helps explain why so many Gen X-ers and old millennials grew up loathing both Steely Dan and the Grammys in equal measure. Needless to say, Steely Dan’s elliptical character studies set to yacht rock sleaze didn’t speak to disaffected American youth the way, say, The Marshall Mathers LP did.

For older listeners, Steely Dan had been a ghost for so long it was hard to believe the group had a new album at all. When Two Against Nature was released in early 2000 — 20 years ago this weekend — it had been nearly 20 years since the band’s last studio album, 1980’s ultra-smooth, laboriously crafted Gaucho. In other words, the last time Steely Dan had released an album, John Lennon was alive, Jimmy Carter was president, and Raging Bull was in theaters. Can you imagine waiting two decades for a new release? That’s the chronological equivalent of Rage Against The Machine releasing a new album this year — or Vampire Weekend releasing their next album in 2039.

And yet the uneasy reunion between Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had been slowly simmering for a number of years. After dissolving Steely Dan in 1981, the core duo reunited in a studio by chance in 1985 when their old producer, Gary Katz, was producing an album by Vogue fashion model-turned-singer Rosie Vela. One night, Walter Becker entered the studio to visit Katz. According to an account in CultureSonar, “Becker liked what he heard of Vela’s songs and suggested someone who might be able to give the keyboard sounds some extra texture”: his pal Donald Fagen.

The two musicians wound up both playing on Vela’s record, their first time working together since the tortured Gaucho sessions. They resumed their friendship and even began writing together in 1986 and 1987. Becker was living in Hawaii. According to an old profile in Rolling Stone, the pair “had a WATS line, and they wore earphones and worked with each other over the phone.” Yet the Fagen–Becker creative partnership wouldn’t be formalized again until the following decade, when Becker produced Fagen’s imaginative 1993 solo album Kamakiriad. Fagen returned the favor, producing Becker’s 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994), and in 1993 Steely Dan reunited for their first tour since 1974. A live album, 1995’s Alive In America, emerged several years later.

It was a promising time to be a Dan fan. Still, the group’s studio output moved at a glacial pace. According to that Rolling Stone piece, they began recording Two Against Nature in 1996. By then, Steely Dan’s hyper-slick jazz-rock empire had long since been supplanted by a new generation dominated by grunge, nü-metal, and teen pop stars, many of whom were not yet born when Aja, the band’s creative and commercial peak, spawned three hits and sold five million copies.

Rolling Stone put it politely: “Steely Dan fever has cooled maybe a little.” More bluntly, Steely Dan just weren’t cool anymore, and hadn’t been for a long time. The kids were listening to “Black Hole Sun,” not “Black Cow.” They were too busy blasting The Battle Of Los Angeles to sufficiently appreciate the fine session musicians of Los Angeles. Music didn’t sound this smooth in the late ’90s, and if it did, it was made by Celine Dion, not cynical ex-bohemian studio hermits.

To its credit, Two Against Nature never plays like a desperate bid to regain cool points or win over a new generation. Steely Dan didn’t go the Supernatural route; they didn’t try to replicate “Smooth” or recruit contemporary pop singers to belt hooks over their virtuosic playing. If anything, Nature might be the most understated Steely Dan album ever. The grooves are slinky and light. The songs, while mostly quite strong, don’t bowl you over with their greatness the way “Aja” or “My Old School” did. The choruses take at least three listens to sink in. And the music isn’t especially showy, except perhaps “West Of Hollywood,” with its frenetic saxophone exertions.

Nor does Two Against Nature pick up where Gaucho, with its meticulous arrangements and disco flirtations, left off. It’s looser, more relaxed. Some of the anxiety has been shaved off with age, though the band’s seedier fixations haven’t exactly disappeared. Gaucho’s anti-heroes included a heroin evangelist babbling about mystical spheres (“Time Out Of Mind”) and a coke dealer who meets clients at Mr. Chow’s (“Glamour Profession”). On Two Against Nature, we get a portrait of what it’s like to be married to a speed addict (“Jack Of Speed”) and a story about a failed novelist working at the Strand after a stint in rehab (“What A Shame About Me”). This is what your dad was listening to when he was fretting about Marilyn Manson warping your brain.

Musically, this stuff has more in common with the spry, laidback funk of Fagen’s Kamakiriad than the Steely Dan that gets played on classic-rock radio. The grooves are tight and unassuming, particularly highlights like “Janie Runaway” and “Jack Of Speed.” The title track reimagines the Bo Diddley beat as a fast-moving jazzy shuffle in 6/8 time. And “Gaslighting Abbie” is slick and funky enough that, with a little more slap bass, its opening groove wouldn’t sound out of place on a late-career Red Hot Chili Peppers album. (Admit it — you can imagine Anthony Kiedis popping in there with some horned-up gibberish.)

And speaking of Kiedis, Two Against Nature may well be the horniest Steely Dan album to date. Robert Christgau, one of the album’s most enthusiastic champions in the critical sphere, declared it to be “an album about old men trying to get laid.” Case in point: The first single, “Cousin Dupree,” is all about a guy trying to put the moves on his hot younger cousin (Edgar Allan Poe, eat your heart out). Then there’s “Almost Gothic,” about a middle-aged man “sizzling like an isotope” with desire for his dominatrix lover, and “Gaslighting Abbie,” about a guy dressing up his mistress in his spurned wife’s clothes.

Yet the saddest song, “What A Shame About Me,” is the one where our hero turns down a sexual advance from his old college flame because he’s too down about his failed writing career while she’s become a famous movie star. (Or maybe, as one far-flung fan theory suggests, it’s because he’s contracted AIDS from intravenous drug use?) It’s one of Fagen’s best character sketches, and a remarkable short story within a song.

The more time I spend with these songs, the closer I come to convincing myself that Two Against Nature is in fact a great Steely Dan album and not merely a very good one. Certainly it’s aged better than Everything Must Go, the 2003 follow-up that rode on the coattails of Nature’s runaway success and seems to exist largely to make it easy for fans to identify the bottom rung in their Steely Dan album ranking. Yet neither album contains any truly essential Steely Dan songs: It’s easy to make a list of the band’s top 10 songs without including a single cut released during Justin Timberlake’s lifetime.

Twenty years ago, my pro-Nature take would have made me a generational traitor. Back then, indie kids despised Steely Dan, regarding them as emblematic of some creative rot at the core of Boomer culture. Pitchfork infamously awarded this album a 1.6, in a now-hilarious review that opens by deriding Steely Dan fans as “pony-tailed Jeep-drivers and terrier-walkers.” It’s a legendary pan whose moral outrage at the gall of Steely Dan to make expensive, slick-sounding music (actual quote: “this glossy bop-pop was the indifferent aristocracy to punk rock’s stone-throwing in the late ’70s”) feels like a relic of a long-gone era of early-internet criticism that valued indie-rock aesthetics above all else. Seven years later, Seth Rogen took a swing at the band in one of Knocked Up’s most quotable lines: “Maybe that’s because Steely Dan gargles my balls.”

But over the past decade, the culture shifted. These days, Steely Dan gets booked at Coachella and Pitchfork heaps belated praise on their classic albums. By the time Walter Becker died in 2017, the younger generations had fully embraced the Dan. I know I’m not the only millennial who feels like some lightbulb switched on during my mid-20s and suddenly Aja made sense. As my friend Jason Adam Katzenstein recently joked on Twitter, “Boomers always told me I’d regret getting a tattoo, communism only works on paper and Steely Dan is great. They were right about Steely Dan!!”

How did we get here? The simplistic answer is that we all turn into our parents eventually. A lot of millennials were force-fed Steely Dan during childhood, which explains why we hated the stuff: Steely Dan is not for kids. As a child, I loved Beatles and Beach Boys songs, but Steely Dan’s music was too stiff, too cynical. The lyrics didn’t make sense; the music seemed impenetrable and lame. Add to that an adolescent’s tendency to view pop culture through a lens of stubborn binaries — you either like Blur or Oasis; you support Two Against Nature or you support Kid A; you stand for Steely Dan or you stand for punk — and it’s clear why Fagen and Becker fell out of favor.

In adulthood, perspectives shift. Maybe you realize Brussels sprouts were great all along. Maybe you get super into Steely Dan. Meanwhile, a few years prior, Steely Dan had been the beneficiary of a major hip-hop endorsement when Kanye West sampled “Kid Charlemagne” on 2007’s “Champion.” In 2019, it hardly seemed surprising that some of my favorite indie-rock albums of the year — Office Culture’s Fagen-esque A Life Of Crime, Sis’s gorgeous Gas Station Roses — sound far more indebted to the sophisti-pop era than, say, Pavement.

And yet embracing Two Against Nature still feels like the last frontier of Steely Dan fandom. It’s the point of no return. This is still the album that beat Kid A. Every time award season rolls around, people get outraged about its 2001 Grammy sweep all over again.

Look: As a Radiohead fan, I get it. I’m not here to convince you that Two Against Nature is a better or more monumental album than Kid A. It’s not. But now that Thom Yorke is roughly the same age (51) that Donald Fagen was in 2000 (52), it’s time to formally forgive Two Against Nature. This album did not do anything wrong. It does not deserve to be held up, year after year, as a beacon of the Recording Academy’s cultural obsolescence. It’s a very good — if perhaps not essential — Steely Dan album. It’s got slick grooves, sordid character studies, a murderer’s row of studio musicians, and the cleanest guitar tone this side of Annandale. In other words: everything in its right place.

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