Does it matter what records sound like? The question is not quite as dumb as it seems. It came to mind while auditioning Steely Dan's recently released Everything Must Go. Time was when Steely Dan made the hippest, coolest rock albums on earth, but that was 30 years ago. Today, reduced to the kernel of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and a gangland of the world's most expensive session musicians, the "group" are like an obscure hieroglyphic in the Esperanto of MTV rock. The odd couple of Becker and Fagen - who rose apparently from nowhere as sneering East Coasters in a period when California dominated American rock - hardly spoke to each other for many years. But as baby boomers grew old, they became nostalgic for more of The Dan's super-cynicism, and the pair found they had a second career ready to go, as honoured old reprobates. In an era when American irony is running at an all-time low, the world may need Steely Dan more than ever.
I should have expected the worst when promotional copies of the disc came with the transcript of an advance review from the website www.highfidelityreview.com, which doesn't so much discuss the music as savour every crystalline turnback, every immaculately digitised arpeggio.
Rock'n'roll was exciting to young ears because it sounded great - compared to Edmund Hockridge and the Light Programme, of course it did. But it sounded great whether you played it on a miserable old Dansette or your dad's radiogram. One of the things that punks despised was a generation which wanted to hear their Pink Floyd albums on state-of-the-art hi-fis, delighting in every cross-channel studio effect. The cheapest and most commonplace portable CD or MP3 player sounds dazzling next to yesterday's stereo system. Records, too, have evolved into matters of fabulous audio expertise. Take a listen to, say, an old T Rex track - useless galumphing drums, bad separation, fuzzy overloaded guitars. Now play a Radiohead track, glistening, lusciously reverberant: no wonder people call them the new Pink Floyd.
The trouble is, that old T Rex track probably still sounds great, bad old sound or no. Steely Dan may have been outsiders in their day, but they were just as concerned with audio perfection as anyone else - more so. In Gary Katz and Roger Nichols, they used the most obsessive producer-engineer team in the business. That their earlier records, at least, had the illusion of being made without excessive doctoring was down to the quality of the players and record-makers involved. These days, there's no such pretence. Their previous set, Two Against Nature, was produced seemingly over years of studio time. They managed to do this one in less than a year, which in some quarters cued gasps of disbelief.
When aural perfection is fetishised with this degree of intensity, you would expect music to be the first casualty. In a way, it is: Steely Dan were smarter than their peers partly because they actually liked music - they weren't in it just for the rock'n'roll lifestyle. Their heroes were Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker rather than the Beatles and the Stones. Becker and Fagen wrote chords and harmonic progressions that stood a mile away from the three-chord trick. But even a style that advanced can ossify. Any jazz musician will tell you that you can run yourself ragged on the hippest set of changes and still sound like a mere technocrat at the end of it.
Becker and Fagen always cut themselves some distance, but it's gone very remote on the new album. Most of the songs on Everything Must Go progress at a mid-tempo lope: the drums are mixed in at exactly the same place, and even though they use a real guy at the kit, he might as well be programmed. Tracks such as "Blues Beach" and the unfathomable "Pixeleen" are like Steely Dan doing an essay on Steely Dan: neat, tailored to the crispest last inch. Their old signature touches crop up throughout the record: the louche saxophone solo over a fade, the girlie voices underscoring the main vocal, the chicken-strut rhythm guitar.
Still, what else did I expect? The Dan go grunge? It's a sad record in a different way: the songs are all about the ending of an era, with "The Last Mall", "Things I Miss the Most" and the title track spelling out a wistful farewell to the America in which the original Steely Dan thrived. Here are two guys who were old-fashioned when they started, nostalgic for a jazz era they weren't old enough to remember, now too old for the culture that they are working in (Fagen's vocals sound as if his teeth are giving him trouble - always the give- away that a singer is fading). What they have left are their chords and progressions; and despite my misgivings, after half a dozen plays, I find the record's stuck fast in my head.
Everything Must Go is out now on Reprise/Warner Bros