“Aja” is the album where Steely Dan gave up all pretense of being a real band. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had been heading in that direction since “Pretzel Logic” three years before, steadily moving towards the sound that Robert Christgau referred to as “well-crafted West Coast Studio Jazz.”
Consider for a moment the fact that “Aja” came out the same year as the debut albums from The Clash, Talking Heads, Blondie, Elvis Costello, not to mention “Rocket to Russia” by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen. The difference in sound on “Aja” from those albums is so stark that it might as well have come from a different planet.
And as much as I love all of those albums, I also love “Aja.” For me, it’s the one time that Fagen and Becker perfected their “West Coast approach.” “The Royal Scam” sounded a little thin to these ears, and “Gaucho” was expertly crafted but ice cold in the heart department. But the seven songs on “Aja” wear their heart on their sleeve to such a degree that…well, let’s just say that sometimes I wonder whether that was really the intent, and if the album was an accidental masterpiece.
But never mind all that. The entirety of the first side is spectacular, even with just three songs – “Black Cow,” the title track, and the immortal “Deacon Blues” (with the line about the Alabama Crimson Tide more relevant than ever in the 21st Century). The second side isn’t quite as good, but has the hits (“Peg” and “Josie”) and manages while barely breaking a sweat to maintain the sound and approach begun on Side One.
1977 is one of my favorite years in music history because it was all over the place. And “Aja” was a big part of that.
Christgau: B+. “I hated this record for quite a while before I realized that, unlike The Royal Scam, it was stretching me some; I still find the solo licks of Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, et al. too f*cking tasty, but at least in this context they mean something. I'm also grateful to find Fagen and Becker's collegiate cynicism in decline; not only is "Deacon Blues" one of their strongest songs ever, it's also one of their warmest.”