Countdown To Ecstasy

Countdown To Ecstasy

In some ways, Steely Dan’s second album is just a meaner, weirder version of Can’t Buy a Thrill, the group’s 1972 debut. On Countdown to Ecstasy, the playing is tighter (“Bodhisattva”), the lyrics are more serrated (“My Old School”), and the fusion of jazz, rock, and R&B more fluid and enigmatic (“Your Gold Teeth”). But what’s a little nihilism when the licks are this tasty and the playing this incomparably smooth? Put “Your Gold Teeth” next to the grooves of something like Santana, or the country-ish tilt of “Pearl of the Quarter” next to Elton John, and you can hear how easily it must’ve been for the band to infiltrate 1970s rock radio—regardless of the subject matter. Released in 1973, a time of national ennui, Steely Dan’s sophomore album riffs on cheating, lust, and other aspects of human existence that can be uncomfortable to think about—especially for those simply seeking out some breezy entertainment: “I’m reading last year’s papers/Although I don’t know why,” declares the post-apocalyptic narrator of “King of the World.” “Assassins, cons, and rapers/Might as well die.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would later remember playing the album for the label executives—“Hawaiian shirts, cigars, and all”—and watching their disappointment unfold in real time. “The company had been hoping for a second-album blockbuster that would zoom to the top of the charts and stay there for weeks, months, years,” the duo recalled. “Instead, they found themselves with what must have sounded to them like some sort of strange neo-Weimar art music, or worse.”

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