MAY 20, 2017
“TURN THAT HEARTBEAT OVER AGAIN” (WRITERS: DONALD FAGEN AND WALTER BECKER)
ARTIST: STEELY DAN
RELEASED 1972 ON CAN’T BUY A THRILL LP
You couldn’t ever accuse Steely Dan of not being serious, at least about the quality of the musicians, production, and songs on their records.
At times, however, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—the core of the band—came across as overeducated smart-asses, a mix of homespun East-Coast cynicism and adopted West-Coast laissez-faire. They weren’t afraid to make fun of people, and that tendency made it harder to feel their occasional sincerity.
Their “bite before being bitten” philosophy made them the bane of critics and, sometimes, other musicians, but the quality of their music hoisted them almost immediately to the top echelon of American rock.
For Fagen and Becker, who were raised on jazz, blues, and the best of pop, the tension between commerciality and creative self-expression was ever-present. This dynamic makes their first album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, the best to my ears. In fusing disparate American, European, Cuban, and Brazilian influences, they created 11 state-of-the-art pop songs, with intellectual lyrics, clear but complex music, and first-rate instrumentation.
Two singles, “Do it Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” brightened up AM radio during some of its darker days, and most of the album had a radio-friendly, tasty, yet organic feel that made it a triumph of intelligent commercial rock. Guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter and drummer Jim Hodder provided worthy support for the complex arrangements Fagen, Becker, and producer Gary Katz dreamed up.
The album’s final track, “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again,” is one of Steely Dan’s masterpieces. Fagen sings about a criminal caper gone tragically bad, the lyrics full of foreboding, guilt, and the knowledge that whatever peace the protagonist enjoys will only be temporary.
It's all backed by an attractive, if somewhat herky-jerky setting. The verses begin with something like a tango, or even an operatic recitative, before releasing into a samba for the second half of the verse and the enigmatic chorus.
Catchy yet highly unusual three-part harmonies, a spine-chilling, almost classical guitar solo-slash-duet, and a sonorous electric piano give the track its sonic punch. It sounds great going down, but is ineffably sad; many of their greatest tracks can be described that way.