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Donald's Pagoda

July 13, 2018

Donald Fagen released Morph The Cat in 2006. It was the third part of his 'Nightfly' trilogy which followed Kamakiriad in 1993 and the Nightfly in 1982. Fagen himself described the way the trilogy idea developed, as well as some of the thematic connections between the three albums in an interview on he did with MP3.com to promote the album:

 

"... it didn’t start out as a trilogy, but you know, the first album was The Nightfly in 1982, and when I was finished with the second one, Kamakiriad, in ’93, it had a kind of unfinished quality. It ended with a kind of a cliff-hanger, so I realized that there should be a third installment... The first album, The Nightfly, was sort of from the point of view of a younger person, maybe an early teenager, and Kamakiriad was… although it had a science fiction framing [device], it was actually about midlife. And, you know, now I’m 58, so this sort of looks toward the last years of life..."

 

The songs on Morph The Cat also seem quite rooted in the period in which they were written (the early 2000's), unlike The Nightfly which looks back to the optimism of post-war America, and Kamakiriad which is set in the future. Many of the songs reflect the uncertainty and anxiety of the post 9/11 zeitgeist, albeit leavened with Fagen's characteristic dry wit. The title track concerns a strange presence which envelops New York City, making it's inhabitants docile and apathetic. Security Joan imagines an unlikely romantic encounter between the narrator and an airport security guard amidst heightened terror alerts, and The Night Belongs to Mona meditates on the suicidal tendencies of the narrator's upstairs neighbour, who was perhaps unhinged by "the fire downtown".

 

On The Great Pagoda of Funn, Fagen does something unusual. For a moment he seems to suspend the irony, and dark humour which is his default lyrical setting, and writes a sincere tribute to the power of love to counter the horrors which surround us. As long as we can maintain a strong, loving relationship with another person, Fagen seems to suggest, these evils can't harm us. It's only when these bonds of affection break down that we become vulnerable to the " hungry wolves" closing in.

 

The music is equally remarkable. When asked about this particular song in an interview with Keyboard Magazine just after the album release Fagen said:

 

The more I write, I try to go for some kind of development, you know, even if it’s just a more of a pop type structure, I still like to get some kind of development in the structure or the solo or something to make it so you’re not just hearing a repeat.

 

The Great Pagoda of Funn is indeed very sophisticated songwriting.The music and lyrics work to enhance each other, and communicate the emotional world of the song in a way more reminiscent of the great songwriters of the past. In some ways the song reminds me of Strayhorn's Lush Life in the way the musical effects mirror the lyrics so closely.

 

I thought it might be interesting to analyse this song in a bit more detail, to see how Fagen creates these effects, and also look at some of the harmonic devices which characterise his songwriting in general.

 

 

The song begins with an instrumental intro which immediately establishes a sense of unease and instability. The tense Dimaj7(add9) chord which opens the tune is very ambiguous. The major 7 extension suggests it's a chord I, but the following move through a Dmin6 to an F#min11 makes things even more confusing and hard to pin-down. Where exactly are we? After a move back to the Dmimaj7(add9) - Dmin6 the progression finally finds some resolution, and moves to the tonic A major.  The Dmin chord was in fact the IVm chord of a minor plagal cadence (with a brief side-step to the chord VI)

 

The next four bars (9 - 12) involve a tonic pedal with the harmony shifting between Dmin6/A to Amajor ending with a C#min11 chord, which is chord III moving to chord IV (Dmaj9) which is the first chord of the A section.

 

The whole intro is essentially alternating between chord IVm and chord I, with the IVm chord being voiced in different ways. This see-sawing between a substitute dominant and tonic creates a restless, uneasy mood and is very reminiscent of the opening of Lush Life where the progression alternates between Db major and B7#11 (the B7#11 chord is like an F#mimaj7 with a B in the bass!)

 

The A section proceeds with a simple chord IV moving to chord III and back to chord IV (bars 13 to 18). The mood is relaxed and reflective, which suits the subject matter:

 

The stars are bright tonight

The air is sweet

Though summer's over now

There's a strange new music in the street

 

Over the last line the music moves to the relative minor, with the progression seeming to reflect the 'strange new music in the street'.

 

G#min7 / E9sus / I E13b9 / I  F#min7 / F#min6 / I F#mimaj7 / F#min6 / I

 

This progression (bars 19 -22) is interesting, as it shows Fagen using the axis system of minor third relationships (which I deal with at length in other posts). This progression is essentially a minor II V I progression leading to F#min, but with the chord V (C#7b9) being substituted for a dominant chord a minor third away (E7b9). These two chords (along with G7b9 and Bb7b9) share the same notes G# B D F over different bass notes e.g:

 

C#7b9     =    F G# B D    over C#

E7b9       =    G# B D F     over E

G7b9       =    B D F  G#    over G

Bb7b9      =   D  F G# B    over Bb

 

It means that these chords are essentially interchangeable and can be used as substitutes for each other.

 

In axis-system terms, this is the dominant axis of the key we are in (A major), so all of these chords could in theory be used as substitute dominants leading to A major (or F#minor).

 

At this point in the song Fagen makes a sudden, unexpected modulation. As if to emphasise the importance of the line 'You and I', he shifts everything up a semi-tone, and we are now in the key of Bb major (bar 23). It's not unusual to suddenly modulate up a semi-tone (in fact this change is sometimes referred to as the 'Eurovision modulation' because of its ubiquity in Eurovision Song Contest entries!) however it's more common for this to happen during the last chorus to give the song a 'gear change' but to do it this suddenly, at this point in a song, is very unusual.

 

The next section in the new key is pretty diatonic, moving from chord IV to chord II and chord VI culminating in a progression again leading to the tonic of the new key (bars 27 - 30).

 

Ebmaj7 / E7b9 / I F9sus4 / B13#11 / Bb6/9 / / / I

 

It might be worth taking a short digression to look at Fagen's use of upper-strucure triads here, as it is relevant to this progression. An upper-structure triad is a chord voicing which uses a triad at the top of the chord. This triad can be major or minor. In the above progression the upper-structures of the first four chords are Gmin / Db / I Gmin / Db / which gives the progression a coherence and logic, despite the fact that the bass notes are changing, and some of the chords are quite dissonant.

 

Fagen uses upper-structure shapes a lot, and in fact most of the chords in this tune can be voiced as upper-structure chords. In harmonic terms I see this progression as a IV VI II V movement with substitutions. I think the E7b9 is an axis substitution for the more obvious G7b9 (altered VI) chord which moves to the F9sus4 (sub for the II chord) and the B13#11 (sub for the V chord) and eventually resolving to the I chord (Bb 6/9). Here Fagen adds another 2/4 bar and then modulates back to A major through the unusual use of a Bbmin7 chord (bar 31).

 

I think here Fagen is thinking of the Bbmin7 chord as a chromatic approach to the Bm11 chord which starts the next section. The next four bars follow a fairly conventional II V I VI pattern in A major. The C13 in bar 36 could be seen as a tritone substitution for F#7 alt, leading to the Bmin11. Fagen then puts in an interesting substitution. In the next bar (bar 39) where we would expect an E7 chord following the Bmin11, Fagen has Cmin11 to F13. This could be seen as a tritone substitution for F#min7 / B7 / |, the B7 functioning as a secondary dominant chord. What's interesting about this substitution is the way it also invokes the Bbmaj key we were previously in. This furthers the sense of tonal ambiguity which reflects the fragility of the hard-won equilibrium Fagen is singing about.

 

The next section is a repeat of the A section until at bar 48 he introduces a new sequence which leads into the chorus. This is a pretty straightforward III VI II V with a tritone substitution thrown in (bars 48 - 49) he then remains in A major (via a backdoor cadence) with the progression: Dmaj9 / / / | G9 / / / | Amaj7 / / / |F#min7 / / /| B13b9 / / / | E13b9 / / /|

 

We now come to the chorus (bar 56), which revisits the same musical material as the intro, only this time centering around Dmaj. Have we modulated to Dmaj here or is the Dmaj still functioning as the chord  IV of A major? It's hard to say, although the way the progression plays out suggests that we have in fact modulated, and that the rest of the piece is really in Dmaj (although it's not quite that simple - of which more later!) Again the dissonance here beautifully mirrors the litany of horrors that threaten to break through at this point:

 

From poison skies

And severed heads

And pain and lies

 

As one contemporary reviewer noted, only Fagen could write a love song with the words 'severed heads' in it! After this terrifying vision the music seems to seek some sort of resolution. I think the E9sus/D in bar 63 is incorrect and should read E/D suggesting an E7 3rd inversion, this leads to bar 64 which I feel is really a kind of inverted secondary dominant on the II chord (Caug can also be inverted to form Eaug). This hanging around on the II7 serves to increase the tension and delay the ultimate resolution. 

 

What follows is a classic  VI II V I progression in the key of D major; it seems  we have finally found resolution - except that the horns play a phrase which seems to be in the key of A major! (or D lydian). This is a masterstroke by Fagen, as it denies us the perfect cadence we crave and also continues the tonal ambiguity that he established in the chorus. Are we in actual fact still in the key of A? (when we hit the Dmaj chord at the beginning of the trumpet solo it seems to be a chord IV). Fagen brilliantly plays with our expectations and uses these ambiguous chord functions to give the whole tune an air of unease and suspense, perfectly in keeping with the subject matter of the song.

 

This is masterly songwriting and the way that Fagen is thinking of the song as a unified whole, with the musical effects mirroring and commenting upon the lyrical content, has more in common with classical song composers like Schubert, than pop song composers.For me Fagen is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, regardless of genre, and this song beautifully demonstrates the complexity and sophistication of his best work.

 

But before I get too reverential maybe we'll leave it to Donald to provide a typically pithy coda. When asked by the New York Times about the inspiration for this song he said:

 

"I wrote that after several beheadings in Iraq... you can thank Mr. Zarqawi for that song."

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