It doesn’t happen often, but whenever Steely Dan—or one of its leaders, Donald Fagen or Walter Becker—comes out with a new album, the band’s more obsessive fans pore over the lyric sheets like a squad of Yalie lit crits, scrambling to decipher the cryptic allusions. They’re the most craftily literate rhymes in rock, something like what Dylan might have written had he come of age, as Fagen and Becker did, amid late-’60s irony instead of early-’60s earnestness. Fagen has just released a new solo album—his first in 13 years, his third ever. It’s called Morph the Cat, and the hunt for meaning is once more afoot.
On the surface, Morph sounds like a standard Steely Dan album: the catchy hooks, the dense harmonies, and the super-slick production values, leavened by Fagen’s nasal troubadour vocals. The songs have some of the same themes of yore: death, decay, illusion, and loss, spiked with a hipster’s black humor instead of miasmic despair. Yet as I’ve noted elsewhere (and I’m hardly alone on this count), there’s something different about the new Fagen album: He sort of means what he’s singing this time; he’s not completely serious (all his albums, as he once put it, are comedy albums in a sense), but the songs are more sorrowful than usual. There’s an apprehension of mortality that, he’s said,stems from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (a few miles from his Manhattan apartment), the death of his mother (after a long bout of Alzheimer’s), and his own advancing years (58 this past January).
Has this end-of-days consciousness triggered an impulse for clarity? He sings more intelligibly on Morph than on the last two Steely Dan albums ( Two Against Nature in 2000 and Everything Must Go in ‘03). As for the lyrics themselves, he’s deigned—for the first time—to explain some of them in his liner notes. He informs us, so we don’t have to do our own research, that the song “Brite Nightgown” refers to W.C. Fields’ pet name for the grim reaper (“the fella in the bright nightgown”); that “What I Do” is “a conversation between some younger version of myself and the ghost of Ray Charles.” And he invites us to put a political gloss on “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” which his notes summarize as “Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government.”
But what about the title song, which starts and finishes the CD—the full song as an opener, a one-verse reprise as a finale—like the covers of a storybook? It’s a jolly holiday tune, with a thick-soled bass line, about a cat named Morph who flies above Manhattan, swooping through apartments and workplaces, bringing good cheer to all. Yet the liner notes suggest both sinister and holy sides: “A vast ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of rapture.” What’s going on here?
First the name: Morph. Is it short for Morpheus, the god of dreams? Is Morph putting the citizens to sleep? In the refrain, Fagen sings of how Morph’s spell makes you feel:
It’s kind of like an Arctic mindbath
Cool and sweet and slightly rough
Liquid light on New York City
Like Christmas without the chintzy stuff
“Arctic mindbath”—isn’t that briskly evocative of Alzheimer’s, the disease that numbed Fagen’s mother’s mind? When I interviewed Fagen for a New York Times profile, I offered up this interpretation. He said he didn’t have that meaning in mind, but that the idea sent a tingle up his spine, so maybe there’s something to it. Later in the song, he sings:
Like you heard an Arlen tune
Or bought yourself a crazy hat
Fagen’s mother was a child singer in the Catskills. When he was growing up in the Jersey suburbs, she sang standards around the house, and she had a special penchant for Harold Arlen tunes. And, by the way, she met her husband while working in the office of a hat maker.
So, is Morph a symbol for Alzheimer’s? Not quite. But Fagen has said in several interviews that Morph is “narcotizing” the citizenry, that the cat’s a metaphor for the “mind-death” that’s entranced much of the country, the result of “layers of brain-washing that’s gone on for so many years” from “the techniques of political machines” to “the unbelievable stupidity on television.” Morph is a pleasure to watch, at first—Fagen’s lyrics call him “this Rabelaisian puff of smoke,” a reference to Francois Rabelais, the ribald 16th-century satirical novelist—but he’s sinister, maybe even deadly in the end—like narcotics—and like Alzheimer’s, which Fagen says had a calming effect on his mother in its early phases (“She’d been a nervous person”) before it ravaged her.
The album, too, starts out merry, then gets dark. There’s “Brite Nightgown,” the jingle-jangle song about dying, and “The Great Pagoda of Funn,” a frankly sentimental ballad about two lovers who try to shut out the harsh world. “Security Joan,” a comic, up-tempo blues number about a man who falls for an airport security guard, nonetheless has terrorism as its plot-premise. “The Night Belongs to Mona” is about a suicidal young woman, dancing in her high-rise late at night, afraid to go out in the day (“Was it the fire downtown/ that turned her world around?” Fagen sings, in the album’s only explicit reference to 9/11). “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” which has the hook of a paranoid political thriller and the imagery of an aliens-attack movie, is, at bottom, about triumphant Republicans. (Fagen wrote it right after the 2004 GOP Convention, which was an invasion of sorts of New York City.) After “Mary” comes the reprise of the title song, and after all we’ve been through, its final and once-gleeful line, “All watch the skies for Morph the Cat,” suddenly seems very ominous. (For more on the Morph’s genesis and Fagen’s suspicion of all things magical, click here.)
So, there’s a reason “Morph the Cat” serves as not only the album’s title but also its bookends. Its imagery fuses Fagen’s private tragedy with what he sees as his country’s political and cultural tragedies. And Morph also reflects the gist of Fagen’s music: catchy rhythms disguising calamitous content. Is Fagen Morph the Cat? There’s something vaguely feline about that photo of him on the CD cover, sitting right next to the heating duct that Morph seeps through. Or has he locked himself away from the world, like Mona or the couple in the great Pagoda of Funn, sitting there gravely, on one side a desk crammed with pencils and paintbrushes, on the other a window from which he too can “watch the skies”? Or is he a bit of both, embodying the spirit of Morph and of his narcotized admirers?