Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Album Cover Art: Donald Fagen - The Nightfly

Donald Fagen: The Goodbye Look


This week’s theme is right up my alley: I’ve run a batch of articles on some of my favourite album cover art over at my joint. And for your benefit (or really mine, for I am crazy busy at the moment), here’s a recycled post from that series, which also features the cover in Geoviki’s post which precedes this one.

Released in 1982 and Donald Fagen’s first solo outing, The Nightfly album evoked the sounds and spirit of the 1950s and early ’60s, without sacrifice of Steely Dan’s jazz-tinged rock. The cover concept clearly seeks to communicate the content, and it is simply executed with Fagen as an old-school radio DJ burning the nightshift with the help of Chesterfield Kings and copious amounts of black coffee. He is the sardonic DJ Lester, still unfettered by playlists, on the independent Baton Rouge station WJAZ who speaks to us, through the RCA 77 DX mic, on the title track.

Look long enough at the cover and listen to the title track, and armed with clues you may begin constructing your own backstory. In front of him is a Sonny Rollins album, so we know DJ Lester specialises in jazz and, as the lyrics advise, communication. What else does he play when he is not condescending his listeners with cynical tales about the absence of love in his life (which explains his nightfly existence)? Surely some more jazz, Coltrane or Parker perhaps. I like to think he branches out into some R&B to lighten up the pre-dawn darkness of 4:10am.

There is a rich irony in the cover’s relationship to the music it seeks to illustrate. Where the graveyard shift DJ is spinning crackling vinyl platters and the lyrics recall the Cold War (just on New Frontier, there are references to The Reds and nuclear shelters, Dave Brubeck as the latest thing, the young Tuesday Weld), The Nightfly was one of the first albums to be recorded entirely digitally. Issued before we were dealt the cursed dominance of the compact disc, this is a quintessential CD album whose charms are not, unlike much other music, boosted by the warmth of vinyl.

The photo itself, by James Hamilton, was shot in Fagen’s New York apartment, in which the radio studio (presumably just the two walls we can see) was temporarily built. Fagen might have assumed the collective persona of the DJs he listened to when he was much younger, but he cannot be accused of method acting: the photo had to be reshot when an engineer in the recording studio pointed out that the microphone had been incorrectly positioned…

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