At what point does music become lifeless? Could it be commercial pandering? Indeed, one could spend hours reeling off artists whose music has come across as a blatant cash grab. Whose time spent on their music was looked over with the vague haze of dollar signs clouding their vision. The sort of music whose sole purpose is to sell, sell, sell often comes with an aftertaste of lifelessness, a kind of coppery taste.
Could it be lack of care and consideration? Similarly, artists who just don’t put in the effort often churn out music that feels as cold as a cadaver: a less than rousing vocal performance and the limp backing of a band who play as if their arms may well break if a guitar is strummed with even a modicum of enthusiasm. Could it be lack of talent? Well that one rather speaks for itself.
One album that has had the term ‘lifeless’ describe it on a myriad of occasions, doesn’t really fit into any of these categories. If anything, it has no interest in pandering to the people, all the time in the world spent on it and a huge amount of talent bolstering it. Alas, the term sticks to the album like shingles to skin. Donald Fagen’s 1993 album Kamakiriad has a very different accusation pinned against it and one to which I take great issue. Kamakiriad, much like many of Fagen’s albums, is labelled with the term lifeless, because of just how good it is…
It’s the 1980s, and electronic music is taking off. Most artists still retain a post-punk attitude, using their synthesisers in novel and eclectic ways. In place of angular guitars and pounding drums came the harshness of the sustained synth note and the relentlessness of the drum machine. However, in the present day, electronic music has become a byword for one thing, lack of emotion. By removing the decidedly human element of playing an instrument, programmed arpeggios become the embodiment of fakery. As the 80s moved on and the acidic edge of the post punk movement was gone, came a fate that all too many albums have suffered with: overproduction.
Many critics take issue with the idea of overproduction. By fiddling with an album too much in the studio, you take out its lifeblood by applying layer after layer of lacquer until the instruments lack that distinctly human trait: mistakes. This has ‘plagued’ many albums in the past and is a favourite device of the 1980’s MOR artists. Music so smooth it makes your teeth hurt. This is exactly what happened on Kamakiriad, apparently. This isn’t just an accusation levied against this album however.
Kamakiriad is far from lifeless and actually contains some of the most vivacious performances of Fagen’s career.
– Kieran Baddeley
Donald Fagen began as the singer in Steely Dan, writing songs with his musical partner Walter Becker. Together, they wrote one of the most consistent bodies of work of the 1970s. A Swiss army knife of a band, their work embodied soul, jazz, pop, blues, reggae and straight rock but all done with a sadistic smile and dark deeply cynical edge. The final album of their initial phase was also their best. 1980’s Gaucho was a smooth and lacquered swansong to an era gone by. Many critics, unsurprisingly, label it as lifeless, the sound of a band overproduced and thus, lacking some of the bite that was there before. I believe they’re missing the point.
Overproduction is a tool, something that can be used in a highly cerebral way. Most recently, hyper-pop has taken this to new heights, using excessive production to achieve emotional highs no other sphere of the pop world can reach. Steely Dan knew this and Gaucho remains a shining example of overproduction done right. Fagen’s solo album Kamakiriad may not reach the same stratospheric heights as Gaucho, but it as an album that uses overproduction in a much more intimate way. All of this prologue was actually just a rather convoluted way of saying Kamakiriad is far from lifeless and actually contains some of the most vivacious performances of Fagen’s career.
The second in a trilogy of albums, bookended by 1982’s The Nightfly and 2006’s Morph the Cat, Kamakiriad is often seen as the problematic middle child of the three. It lacks the optimistic retroactivity of The Nightfly and isn’t suffused with the same late career melancholy that Morph the Cat is but the album takes Fagen’s Jazz-pop on a divergent path; one to greener and more futuristic pastures. Essentially a concept album about a man travelling in a steam powered car called a Kamakiri, Fagen utilises its inherent sci-fi themes to create an album that glances over 1950s America by way of a dystopian future.
The album’s themes are relatively subtle despite their booming eccentricity, with only two tracks really revelling in this unique brand of future nostalgia in the way one would expect. The album opener, ‘Trans-Island Skyway’ sets the stage beautifully: over one of the album’s more prismatic grooves, Fagen waxes lyrical about his new car: “it’s a total biosphere… the farm in the back is hydroponic.” Elsewhere, on ‘Tomorrow’s Girls,’ he imagines an invasion of women from outer space harkening from “Sheilus to the reefs of Kizmar, from Stargate and the outer worlds.” These moments of pure surrealism make Kamakiriad one the most buoyant entries into Fagen’s catalogue. While the album is not beholden to its science fiction undercurrents, when they do pop up, they provide a levity seldom seen in his previous band’s work.
In the wake of the dark tales Steely Dan conjured, comes a wave of wit and charm. Fagen’s writing is often joyous and funny in a way Steely Dan never were.
– Kieran Baddeley
In fact, solo-Fagen is a very different beast to Steely Dan-Fagen. When writing as a duo, him and Walter Becker create dark vistas and histrionic tales of troubled lives. Their writing may seem pleasant on the surface, but dig a little deeper and a seedy underbelly lies beneath. However, one listen to The Nightfly and Kamakiriad reveals Fagen on his own to be a much more optimistic soul. In the wake of the dark tales Steely Dan conjured, comes a wave of wit and charm. Gone is the darkness and it is replaced with a warmth. Fagen’s writing is often joyous and funny in a way Steely Dan never were. Sometimes, this extends to full submersion in sincerity.
‘Springtime’ has a celebratory edge that imbues lines like “swing out, to Lake Nostalgia, take route five, to laughing pines… dive into Springtime” with an undiluted glee. On ‘Snowbound’, the album’s emotional centrepiece, Fagen describes two people snowed in for the evening. It doesn’t state a gender for his companion and thus, becomes an allegory of unromantic love. The line “that little dancer’s got some style” further solidifies this ‘bromantic’ evening, if one could call it such a thing. It’s a beautiful tale that lacks any ulterior motive or edge. It’s wonderful to see Fagen comfortable enough to express a simple statement so fluidly.
Repeated listens reveal a clearer vision than you would expect. The album chugs along at its own pace and rarely lets up. When it does however, these moments become the calm before the storm. ‘Trans-Island Skyway’s’ elongated verse and bridge make Fagen’s sudden falsetto on the chorus all the more engaging. The breakdown towards the end of the song of “c’mon Daddy, get in let’s go” is again a wonderfully absurdist touch, the like of which is demonstrative of Fagen’s continued wit beyond Steely Dan. Perhaps the most cathartic moment on the album is where he lists the imposter’s on ‘Tomorrow’s Girl.’ Thirty-six triplets of denials that go on for way longer than you expected. “Not my Annie, not my Lani, not my Carrie” he unrelentingly continues, practically salivating over the last syllable of each name. When the formula does break however, it’s a welcome reprieve: “you’re not my sister, not my mother, significant other” provides a break in melody that becomes all the more intoxicating when you’re actively waiting for it.
While some would see the stretching of musical segments until they become futile as a negative, it’s all part of the world Fagen conjures up on the album. Grooves are trodden into the ground, dug up and trodden on again. The guitars are delicate china; the drums are cross stitching barely but assuredly holding everything together. It’s an album that works like clockwork but maintains a fragility throughout. Glass-like grooves continue seemingly into eternity but it’s only on subsequent listens that you wish they would actually continue on forever; a spiral of groove-perfection spinning into the ether.
Indeed, the musical syntax of Kamakiriad is one of perfection. While Becker and Fagen continued to strive for perfection with their Steely Dan output, when recoding in the 90s, Fagen was more or less able to reach it. Kamakiriad isn’t Jazz-fusion. Miles Davis’ output seldom resembles the songs on Kamakiriad. Fusion is too alchemic for Fagen, it insinuates mess. The music on Kamakiriad is as close to Muzak as one can get without actually being played in an elevator. Nothing is out of place, no stray hairs or unpolished edges. If the guitars were played by the sort of robots that inhabit Kamakiriad’s sci-fi landscape, one wouldn’t be surprised. I agree, to some this would become lifeless, but if, like me, the hypnotic perfectionism of the grooves on Kamakiriad appeal to you, then Fagen’s vocal performances will lift it to another level.
There is an almost palpable sense of togetherness on the record…There’s an undeniable connection with home and the loved ones around him.
– Kieran Baddeley
The album features some of Fagen’s most spirited choruses. He uses his back-up singers rather cleverly, deploying them when he needs a chorus to be lifted to a level his voice alone wouldn’t be able to reach. This can be seen most on tracks like ‘Florida Room’ where the choral element of his harmonies appropriates an almost dream-like transcendence. The chorus is beams of sunlight through the slatted blinds of the laid-back groove. These harmonies also bolster some of the more important lines from the album. On ‘Countermoon’ (ironically the albums shortest track at, a still stately, five minutes) his singers, a chord above him, agree ebulliently when he reveals “my Jackie was the best.” “He was the best” they reply, distending that last word until you’ve noted just how good “Jackie” actually was.
Cyclically, this idea loops back to an earlier point I made. There is an almost palpable sense of togetherness on the record. On The Nightfly, Fagen was a Disk Jockey in a basement somewhere, broadcasting his musings to the world, alone. Wherever his steam-powered locomotive takes him on Kamakiriad however, there’s an undeniable connection with home and the loved ones around him. On ‘Florida Room,’ when “the cold winds come,” he goes “where the Dahlias bloom,” he “keeps drifting back” to his Florida Room. On ‘Teahouse on the Tracks’ he preaches about a time when we’ll all be as one, despite having one of the most refracted grooves on the album. ‘Snowbound’ however, nails the point home for good. The chorus is a picturesque scene, one where he is glad of the snow, one where he can stay in with a friend and enjoy a moment of companionship.
These themes of safe isolation and homecoming are reinforced by the credits. Walter Becker produces the album and, at the time, reignited rumours of a Steely Dan reconciliation. In way, it was. The album bares his production hallmarks, but the songs bare his touch also. While they lack the acerbic sarcasm of their writing in Steely Dan, it’s not too big of a leap to imagine he’s the snowbound companion with Fagen. By his own admission, Fagen’s favourite line on the album also comes on this song: “We sail our icecats on the frozen river, some loser fires off a flare, amen, for seven seconds it’s like Christmas day and then it’s dark again.” It’s a gorgeous image that evokes the ecstatic beauty of togetherness in moments like this. Most poignantly, Fagen’s then wife, Libby Litus, co-wrote the track ‘Florida Room.’ The song’s themes of returning home, returning to base after being away and finding ultimate solace, become all the more heartfelt when you realise they wrote it together. Kamakiriad is the most content of any Fagen album. It does not take many musical risks, Fagen’s lyrical archness is tones down and the song lengths deny any brevity. Fagen was content, and the music showed this.
In 2016, Litus filed for divorce after Fagen allegedly pushed her against a marble window frame. They have since reconciled. The track they co-write becomes a harrowing reminder of the fleeting happiness one can feel, the existential comfort you can reach, only to be rug-pulled from beneath on the back of a frankly unforgivable action. Fagen hasn’t released an album since then and Kamakiriad perhaps stands as a last place of comfort and solitude before it all came shattering down.
2012’s Sunken Condos is his most recent album. On it, he has finally metamorphosed into the crooning lounge lizard we all knew he could eventually be. Yet, it’s the albums that came before it that, rightfully, still stand as his masterworks. 2006’s Morph the Cat boasts some of his best writing and late career vocals but the real virtues are placed upon his first studio effort. The Nightfly is truly remarkable album, a once in a lifetime masterpiece of song craft and technical vision, it is truly one of the best albums ever made. So where does this leave Kamakiriad? I boasted earlier that the album is considered lifeless because of just how good it is. I stand by this. The perfection of the album only seeks out further claims of this lifelessness. But, I can’t help but think critical consensus should be on its side by now. The album is a joyous, fun and buoyant affair, hindered not by its concept-album-flirtations, but instead its remarkable attention to detail.
The closing track, ‘Teahouse on the Tracks’ solidifies my original point into pure gold. Yes, the music on Kamakiriad may be too synthesised for some, too glacial in its pace and too hypnotic perhaps in its entrenched grooves, but Fagen is the fullest of life he’s ever been. “Someday we’ll all meet, at the end of the street, at the teahouse on the tracks” he intones, accompanied by a collective of people who nearly overpower him. Here, Fagen is promising something that he genuinely believes in, a time when similarly-minded people can come together in a celebration. Kamakiriad is a celebration of life at its core, albeit life in a completely hypothesised world. To all those who think an album so revelatory in its celebration of life can be lifeless, I invite you to a little teahouse, somewhere at the end of the street, then you’ll see what life is really about.
The Breakdown | Album Review: Donald Fagen – Kamakiriad
Fagen’s 1993 album remains a minsundertood album. Far from the fialure many critics would have you beleive, it is an album bursting at the seams with wit and warmth. It is an album that remains a shining example of Donald Fagen’s optimism when he drops the facade.