When Steely Dan debuted in 1972, it was one of dozens of slicked-up boogie bands playing an eclectic mix of roots-rock, jazz-fusion, and pop-R&B. Later, co-founder Donald Fagen began focusing more on the fusion, such that he's now narrowed his sound to a single synthetic funk groove with jazzy overtones. The Fagen of the '00s doesn't seem capable of easy-flowing pop songs like "Reelin' In The Years" or "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," or even a light-rock confection like "I.G.Y." On Morph The Cat, his latest solo album, Fagen limits himself to popping bass and hanging brass, obsessively building and rebuilding the sound he'd most like to live in.
Which doesn't make Morph The Cat a bad album. If anything, there's something weirdly compelling about hearing Fagen settle into this particular rut, especially on a set of songs about growing old in an age of terror. Throughout Morph The Cat, Fagen recalls his days as a young lothario—on the album's best song, "What I Do," he even chats with Ray Charles about music's power to seduce—and he takes selfish pleasure in society's decline, because even though he can't tomcat around like he used to, soon nobody else will be able to, either.
Longtime Steely Dan fans might be frustrated by Morph The Cat's lack of musical diversity, or might pick through it for standout touches like the hard-rock guitar stings on "What I Do," or the long wah-wah guitar solo on "Brite Nitegown." But Morph The Cat is primarily a sublime act of self-indulgence on Fagen's part. The album's horn-and-harmonica accents sound nice, but they're only there because it's what Fagen would like to hear in his—and the world's—final hours. The record ends with a succession of paeans to security people, the suicidal, and "lovers with something left to lose," all of whom intrigue Fagen because they care more than he can manage.