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Hearing Advice from Beyond the Grave

Donald Fagen has always been at his best when the forces arrayed against him have sinister motives and shady backstories. He gravitates, as a lyricist, to the unseemly side of things, and when he finds them, he morphs into a crime-novel detective, flipping up the lapel of his trenchcoat and nervously scribbling notes about the movements of his rogues and villains.

Fagen's Steely Dan songbook overflows with such dossiers: "Sign In Stranger" and "Kid Charlemagne," "Glamour Profession" and, perhaps most presciently, "Third World Man." Fagen is, in other words, not prone to anything that smells too sentimental, and that's why his salute to Ray Charles, "What I Do," is so disarming. He's the nerdy kid asking Charles for advice, wondering why the "girls treat you nice that way," to which the late legend replies, "It's not what I know, think, or say / It's what I do."

Musically, Fagen has written songs like this, but he's never been quite so forthright with the awe. An acolyte paying homage to artistic commitment, Fagan can't hide his admiration as he gets to the song's clincher line: "It's deep beneath the skin / It's what I major in." He's back at his old school, sitting cross-legged and motionless, listening deeply to Genius Plus Soul while pondering the great unknowables.

Listen to yesterday's "Song of the Day."

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.