One of the most appealing things about Steely Dan has always been the contradictions found in their music. Their cynical, highly literary lyrics about pedophiles, drug dealers, and murderers continue to sound extra creepy when placed against the chrome backdrop of their sleek production and studio perfectionism. In Circus Money, the latest solo output from Walter Becker (the duo’s darker half), the lyrical content is the same, but the group’s typically muscular jazz stylings are traded in for warm, reggae grooves.
The irony of Becker’s breezy rhythms is chillingly effective in amping up the sleaze factor to an even higher level than the typical Dan song. ”Bob is Not Your Uncle Anymore,” a honey-laced-with-blood fable about a girl and her sexual predator of an uncle, is far more weird and disturbing here as a margarita-in-hand, island jam than it would be as, say, a Tom Waits-worthy carnival romp.
However, the offbeat guitar and syrupy bass lines begin to wear out the listener, particularly in the album’s second half with sluggish tracks like “Do You Remember The Name,” and “God’s Eye View.” The pseudo-Jamaican beats all begin to sound the same; surprising, considering the savage diversity of Becker’s solo debut, the criminally underrated 11 Tracks of Whack.
Still, there are some bright spots in Becker’s lazy day at the nude beach. The most successful tracks add some much needed musical diversity to the sun-saddled atmosphere of the album. Loungy opener “Door Number 2,” is peppered with the Dan’s trademark white boy saxophone, courtesy of Chris Potter, and “Downtown Canon,” a bittersweet reflection on Becker’s cocaine-fueled nights of his younger years, tinged with pipe organ and chimes, boasts all the emotional ambiguity and musical layers of a Dan b-side.
So if you’re a fan of Donald Fagen’s throatier musical other-half, and you don’t mind shining the Cuervo Gold for a fresh Daiquiri, Circus Money is the album for you. Grab a spot by the pool, watch the palm trees sway, and try not to get too grossed out by your creepy uncle in the shallow end.