#386: Steely Dan, "Pretzel Logic" (1974)

Steely Dan is the most uncool band of all time. Even in a post-Yacht-Rock world where Hall & Oates are once again selling out large venues, the kids just aren’t vibing with the Dan. Maybe it’s because we all saw Say Anything, where high school dream date Diane Court’s father, played by Frasier’s dad, grooves HARD to Pretzel Logic opener “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” He is driving to Diane’s high school graduation, gently singing and tip-tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. What a square, man. His car (a new sedan), his music (Steely), his attire (collared shirt) are all juxtaposed with lovable loser Lloyd Dobler's $500 rust-mobile and funky funk-rock (Fishbone?). The message is clear: Teenage Lloyd, beat up cars, loud funk-rock = cool / Frasier’s dad, new sedans, and Steely Dan = uncool.

And though I love Steely Dan, I can kind of see where the movie is coming from. Because if you need music for the uncoolest of the uncool, the hopelessly unhip, the Dan is your jam. And I’m not talking about those quirky, fun, socially malleable people existing at the fringes of culture. Those people are kind of cool, ya know? I’m talking about the uncool of your worst parents. Not parents in the general sense where yeah, sometimes they can be pretty cool, Jimmy’s mom let us watch horror movies and stay up late, she is awesome. No. I am talking about your worst parents. So, imagine your parents, imagine your mother and father, imagine them existing in infinite universes and then find the most embarrassing pair of the bunch. Those two are huge Steely Dan fans.

What we are dealing with in Pretzel Logic is weaponized uncool. The record incorporates all the pomp and schmaltz that irony-fueled tastes can handle. Then the Dan adds additional sarcasm, inside jokes, aggressively inscrutable musicianship and druggy drug drugs. If the Doobie Brothers are the high, Steely Dan is the comedown. Sure, you can have a fun time and dance to Michael McDonald. You can sing that fun falsetto and don your captain’s hat. But if you’re listening to Steely Dan, you have to weigh the joyous musical smoothness of “Through with Buzz” against its actual lyrics. Which are, more or less, about an addict lying to themselves. Your yachty margarita doesn’t taste so sweet anymore, does it?

And with its easy conceit and waiting room piano, “Through with Buzz” might be one of the lighter tracks on Pretzel Logic. “With a Gun” is about murder. My own interpretation of “Parker’s Band” is it’s a song about musical theft and exploitation. The titular track, “Pretzel Logic,” has a verse loathing the American southeast. “Barrytown” is about the rift between progressive students at Bard College and the wealthy townies who occupy the city of Barrytown, NY, nearby where Bard is located. In the middle of the record, the band covers Duke Ellington's “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” which at face value isn’t a grim song, but is made disturbed and clownish by the context of the album.

Murder, class struggles, Duke Ellington, drug addiction, sounds pretty sexy right? Well, don’t worry, because this is Steely Dan. So they’re going to veil all those subjects in metaphor and humor. Then they’re going to compose the most inoffensive, hoaky, and catchy music imaginable. The tunes, sweet as they are, will alienate the young, the cool, and relegate the Dan to niche rock.

One common critique of the Dan and their music is that they play too much inside baseball. This is, by and large, true. One can hardly get through a single sentence in a favorable Steely Dan album review before the author mentions the genius of chord changes, their studio mastery, or the expertise of their session partners. Also, the word Jazz gets thrown around a lot. Ugh, you can def tell these are the kind of people who like Jazz way, way too much. Steely Dan are obsessives. Tale upon tale and story upon story rambles on regarding their intense recording standards and near insane naval gazing. It is fair to critique them for existing in their own bubble. But if you can get inside there, if you can get find a way to approach the contrast between sound and subject, Pretzel Logic is a hugely rewarding album. It is pure, uncut, don’t-give-a-fuck nerd music. A sound to be ignored.

—Steven Casimer Kowalski