After enjoying success throughout the seventies with Steely Dan, Donald Fagen opened his rarefied solo career with The Nightfly, one of the first all digital albums. The choice of technology fits well with the almost maniacal care that clearly went into both the arrangement and the performance of each of the record’s songs: nothing is left to chance, every note is exactly where it ought to be and not one note more than necessary is played. Even from the point of view of production great care went into ensuring that no instrument ever outplayed the others. When listening to The Nightfly in your headphones you get the impression that the musicians play in a circle, with no one ever taking the centre of the stage.
Fagen appears to have total control over both music and technology, but doesn’t let himself be distracted by expertise for the sake of itself. Rather, he bends it to his own purposes in order to achieve exactly the product he has in mind. The result is an album that does sound chilly as ice – sidereal is the adjective that comes to mind – but is neither uninspired nor a sterile exercise of virtuosity. While the overall style and atmosphere are decidedly uniform and lean towards the jazzy – some of the top jazz-rock musicians of the time play in the album – the songs have enough personality to stand out from each other. The Nightfly is also a sort of concept album, centered on the dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century’s fifties.
The Nightfly starts off with “I.G.Y.”, a pleasant song about the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 and the wonders that science and technologies will bring. It is probably my favourite song from the album, along with “New Frontier” and the slower “Maxine”. An effective cover of Leiber/Stoller‘s “Ruby Baby” is another highlight from this record: The Drifters meet The Manhattan Transfer, in a way. Still, it’s rather unfair to single out specific songs, as they are all good.
The Nightfly is a record you should listen to with your headphones late at night in the dark, but it’s also very good to listen to in the background, pleasant but not distracting. Definitely money well spent.