I confess I've heard this song so many times now that I don't chuckle so much as I smile whenever it's played (and at our house, that is at least a weekly occurrence). But as with most songs from Donald Fagen's first solo album, The Nightfly, it shimmers with numerous light moments that had me giggling when I first played it, and it has a depth of perception that holds up to repeated spins. The entire album is sustained by the larger force of laughter - joy - and continues to cultivate within me that peculiar garden of delight.
New Frontier and the album’s title song sit at the center, operating as its yin and yang. And while “Lester the Nightfly” appears as a caustic, emotionally-wounded man whose only consolation is his all-night jazz show, New Frontier introduces us to a much younger Romeo, an unnamed pup who affects a hipster persona to cover his obvious lack of experience. He cheerfully announces “Yes, we’re gonna have a wing-ding/A summer smoker underground” in his father’s bomb shelter, which provides the evening’s theme, and Fagen’s successively artful punch-lines: “We’ve got provisions and lots of beer/The key word is survival on the new frontier.”
The anticipated post-apocalyptic landscape looks cheerier by the moment, particularly when an attractive blonde walks in. “She loves to limbo, that much is clear/She’s got the right dynamic for the new frontier.” The singer makes clumsy conversational forays - “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes, I like him too” - returning twice to the song’s bridge where he confesses a heady desire for independence, held in check by crippling indecisiveness.
Incredibly, the blonde sticks around for further advances. He finally proposes spending the night in the bomb shelter, every sci-fi geek’s hokiest fantasy come true. And now the hipster façade begins to fade in the intensity of this encounter, to be replaced by something completely unexpected. “Confess your passion, your secret fear/Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.” The “new frontier” turns out to be not nuclear holocaust, but something equally unimaginable to our protagonist: intimacy.
It’s anybody’s guess how our protagonist fares. Considering how this song leads into Lester’s blues, it’s not unreasonable to think he’s headed for heartbreak. Indeed, the entire album is a navigation toward, around, and through various forms of heartbreak, and yet it remains remarkably sunny, concluding with Walk Between Raindrops – a tune that, by Fagen’s standards, is uncommonly cheerful. The album’s lyrical heft has the added weight of life’s circumstances. Shortly after the album was released Fagen publicly stated, “I’ve got no more music in me,” and sank into a clinical depression. Fortunately for us all, his claim was somewhat off the mark. One arduous recovery and three albums later, his most recent effort, Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go, has moments that are every bit the equal to this album, giving the listening public what we need to walk between raindrops.