Along with Weather Report, Steely Dan - named after the steam-powered dildo in Naked Lunch (1959) - had set the tone for jazz in America in the 1970s. While their debut Can't Buy A Thrill (1972) was criticised for being too pop-based, all their subsequent albums received critical acclaim and produced a series of hits. Each record in their catalogue seemed to push the boundaries of jazz rock back while retaining a sound unique to each album, from the bright toe-tappers on Countdown To Ecstasy (1973) to the deceptively chilled-out Aja (1977, pronounced 'Asia'). After two years of legal wrangles surrounding their record deal with MCA, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen needed a sure-fire follow-up to Aja. Having stopped touring in 1974, there was no other means to solidify their reputation just as punk was sending jazz back into the shadows.
We open with the chilled-out keyboard groove 'Babylon Sisters'. Unlike its overly laid back predecessor, you can sense the metiuculous nature of the production from the beginning. This has a very pop feel to it; all the lyrical cynicism of The Royal Scam (1976) has gone, and the chorus lyrics are very mainstream: So fine, so young/ Tell me I'm the only one. The female vocalists compliment Fagen's rather emaciated delivery very well, and the whole thing winds up very nicely.
This trend continues in the more lively 'Hey Nineteen'. The simple drumming gets your toes tapping while the soft lyrics leave you leaning back in a comfy chair and closing your eyes. Not that the music will send you asleep. The chorus soons kicks in with honky-tonk piano and lovely harmonies. The real draw of this song, however, is Becker's beautiful slide guitar work. And while the instrumental period in the middle is too long, the whole thing feels suave and sophisticated.
So does 'Glamour Profession', a song about celebrity or the fashion industry, which this time sees Becker doing some catchy strumming with saxophones crooning behind him. Fagen's vocal is more interesting here, still as flowing as on the previous tracks but with tighter vocals brought out by his accent. This is certainly the case with the chorus: I'm the one (it's a glamour profession)/ I'm the one (the L.A. concession/ Local boys spend a quarter/ Just to shine the silver bowl/ Living hard will take its toll.
From hereon in, the album is a little hit-and-miss. The title track boasts attractive sax at the start, but in this case Fagen is ill-at-ease. The lyrics are weaker and jar when sung with piano note-to-note - all great Steely Dan songs have vocals in harmony to or set against the accompaniment. On the other side of things, the female vocals on the chorus would be better if the chorus were not so meandering and the rhyming so contrived- Who is the Gaucho, amigo?/ Why is he standing in your Spanish leather poncho? doesn't have a ring to it. ('Gaucho', incidentally, is a Portugeuse word meaning a South American cowboy).
'Time Out Of Mind' restores the balance, with catchy hi-hat and piano work, as well as welcome female vocal parts to counterpoint an on-form Fagen. The rhyming is better, and though the chorus is a little enigmatic - Tonight when I chase the dragon/ The water may change to cherry wine/ And the silver will turn to gold/ Time out of mind - it's a very easy listen without being vacuous. You don't get that feeling, however, on 'My Rival'. Though the female parts are attractive to listen to and are in themselves quite catchy, the staccato plucking jars with the drawn-out organ parts. Fagen seems to straining at the vocal chords without achieving much, and for all the jazzy-blues guitar overlayed towards the end, it is found wanting.
Thankfully, 'Third World Man' provides the ideal closer to the album. It has some of the pair's best lyrics since 'Kid Charlemagne' on The Royal Scam, with Fagen's voice ideally suited to the title phrase. The opening lines set the enigmatic tone, but it is the chorus which really draws out the quality of their songwriting - Soon, you'll throw down your disguise/ We'll see behind those bright eyes/ By and by, when the sidewalks are safe/ For the little guys. 'Third World Man' also has one of the great instrumental riffs of the Dan's career; it comes in first at about 1:45 and sticks in your mind so that you want to hear it again almost immediately.
Gaucho may come across as a gasping last hurrah when considered historically alongside its predecessors. But if anything it marks the culmination of a successful and pioneering career; considering the changes in musical tastes, it was definitely the right time to bow out. Taken outside of history for the moment, Gaucho is a relaxing, suave and thoroughly charming record which builds on the strengths of Aja. It's uneven, make no mistake, because being Steely Dan it is experimental and not all experiments work - indeed there is a lot wrong with some of the pieces. But while it may lack the political and lyrical bite of its predecessors, Gaucho serves as a worthwhile testament to these two remarkable musicians.