Steely Dan’s Aja doesn’t sound like any of the band’s previous work. It’s true that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have always worn their Jazz influence on their sleeve but they were also very mindful of what was charting on the Top 40. Songs like Reelin’ in the Years, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, and even non-singles like Bad Sneakers could easily rub elbows with popular pop songs at the time. However, it was very apparent by this album that Steely Dan were ready to go beyond the popular crowd to fully embrace their love for Jazz, resulting in Aja, a landmark in the Jazz Rock genre.
The immediately striking sound you’ll notice is the production quality. Every guitar strum, drum beat, and piano key sounds so crisp and clear, it’s astonishing that this was recorded almost 40 years ago in 1977. No matter what song you listen to, the quality of the recording is impeccable. This is definitely an album that begs to be played through good speakers with the lights off and the room devoid of any distractions. This is easily one of the best produced albums ever created and the best I’ve ever heard.
Of course it helps if the music itself takes advantage of the quality of its production and Aja does this is spades. All of the songs have dynamic sound levels, various instruments expertly mixed in with each other, and diverse vocal ranges. In an age that has a loudness problem, this is a refreshing change to listen to. All these technical elements of the album may seem a bit trivial but it’s crucial to understand what Steely Dan accomplished with this album.
Many complain when an album is over produced. The edges of a song so smoothly rounded out that the music loses any personality it may have had. An organic sound can become synthetic as a result. However, when done right, it sounds like this album. Aja is definitely extremely produced, with no note or sound out of place or apparent where not needed. However, nothing sounds or feels fake because instead of polishing past the point of possibility, Steely Dan accepts natural limitations but pushes for the best the musicians can do. As a result, the instrumentation is impeccable and most importantly, the conveyance of each song’s feel, message and atmosphere is sublimely perfected.
And what a beautiful perfection these songs are. The whimsical Peg reflects the character described in the song, with it’s exuberant cries in the chorus and hopeful aspirations in the verses. The title track is comparatively positive but is a cerebral celebration rather than a festive one. The serenity that the song Aja creates is hypnotizing with its emotion-driven solo and Bebop style percussion. Even the final track Josie, with it’s more rock approach and sobering feel compared to the rest of the album, has a cool and calm approach and is ultimately a celebration in itself, albeit with a slightly more dangerous feel.
A big theme in Aja is the idea of travel and other foreign places and this is apparent in not only the title track but in Black Cow, Home at Last, and Deacon Blues. Black Cow depicts the feeling of aloofness one could feel while exploring a new place, while Home at Last is the sobering desire to return home. Deacon Blues however is the celebration of excess and the desire to be untethered by expectations. The way the brass section in that song weaves in and out of the drums, keyboard, and guitar is a pacifying journey and it makes Deacon Blues arguably the best song on the album.
Pristine. To describe this album in one word is difficult but if I could somehow manage to tell you how it feels, the one word that would come close would be “pristine”. All of the songs on the album are an example of exemplarity production, precision, musicianship, and composition. Steely Dan’s Aja is the successful culmination of the band’s previous attempts to meld their Jazz influences with Pop/Rock sensibilities as they were in the 1970s. Letting their musical background fully color and overtake their compositions makes for a mesmerizing seven songs that by far results in the duo’s greatest achievement and one that still sounds fresh and astoundingly current even by today’s standards.