By 1982, Billy Joel was at the top of his game. After a string of chart toppers (The Stranger, 52nd Street and Glass Houses), he put out a live album (Songs In The Attic) that revived his older tunes. Then, he decided to do something different. Glass Houses proved he could rock, but did it prove he could write? In, my personal view, I think that’s sort of what he set out to do with the album of today’s review: The Nylon Curtain. Released in 1982, the album didn’t fare so well on the charts, at least compared to Glass Houses, yet it was a critical success. Do I think it’s a success? Well, read on to find out…
The album kicks off with the sound of a steam engine, signaling right away that this song, nay, the entire first side, is going to sum up troubles of the working middle class of past and present. Allentown is simply a masterpiece, filled with wonderful, heart-wrenching lyrics about a town of people whose dreams never happened, yet they still wait for it. “We’re waiting here in Allentown.” The bridge (“Every child…”) is thumping realization of reality, compared to the painting in the verses, yet fits in smoothly. David Brown’s lead guitar solo screams during an instrumental version of the bridge, that leads to the last chorus.
Laura is a funny number, which, if Joel’s ‘concept’ holds, seems to be about a guy who gets stuck with a girl he can’t stand and can’t fulfill her fantasies. Both characters feel trapped and the title character seems to be a girl that’s stuck in working family and thought the narrator would be a savior. He’s not, obviously, so she tortures him. I love Liberty DeVitto’s drumming on the song. The piano intro is funny, too. It’s very contradictory to the nervous, psychotic anger of the singer.
Next is Pressure. As a kid, I loved this song to death and played it over and over again and I still love it. The synthesizer is awesome and the bass by Doug Stegmeyer is great, too. It plays along with the synth and feels like a heartbeat. This obviously works well and you get this great feeling of being under real ‘pressure’. Joel’s lyrics are pretty good, and filled with humorous illusions. “Your Peter Pan advice” and “Sesame Street? What does it mean?” just add to song. If the song does add to the concept, it shows how people really and very easily can fold under pressure. Who sits under the most pressure? Sometimes it really is the working-man who has to feed his family and doesn’t know if he can afford to put food on the table. The sudden ending gives way to helicopter sounds, which means…
Goodnight Saigon follows. What was the number one thing average people worried about in the earlier seventies and late sixties? Getting drafted and sent to war, of course. So, Joel gives the view of the war from a kid that knows what he’s doing over in the Vietnam War isn’t helping. These are average kids stuck over there. It’s a very emotional song and a great way to end the first side. Joel’s band is wonderful and the piano playing is as masterful as ever. The song is simply a great performance all around.
If there is anything to say about the first side, before looking at the second, is that it is four really great songs that do fit a loose concept, which unfortunately doesn’t resonate to the second side too well. Still, the songs mold together and the listener could feel that the song might be about a kid from Allentown, Pennsylvania, without stretching it, even a little bit. The kid gets a girl named ‘Laura’ and has to deal with the ‘Pressure’ of life, before finally getting thrown straight into the Vietnam War.
However, there is a second side, so the story continues…or does it?
She’s Right On Time is an amazing song that actually did get some recognition by being included in the My Lives box set (see review #5, Sept. 2006). I love the drumming. The lyrics aren’t anything to go nuts about, but the track itself would’ve made a great single…if there weren’t three of them already on the first side. I also love the harpsichord-type intro and break. It adds a classical feel to the track.
On the next band, you’ll find A Room Of Our Own. It’s a fun, rock rave-up that feels much like a throw-away about how meticulous women are and how sloppily lazy men are. The lyrics simply don’t make much sense and seem to poke fun at the stereotypes of society about gender. I particularly find the “I can still remember being packed together…” section hilarious and borderline stupid. Then again, the whole song sits very close to that border!
Surprises is one of my favorite Billy Joel songs. It feels like something out of a horror film, especially with the opening. You get the sense of a conscience attacking…not helping…the person whose brain it sits in. As the shortest song on the LP, it’s brilliant. The echo drenched segment (“Don’t look now…”) is almost horrific and the fact that it follows the laid-back “A Room Of Our Own” is just freaky sequencing on Joel and Phil Ramone’s part.
Following that is the experimental Scandinavian Skies. It opens with quiet synthesizers and what sounds like a flight attendant. Next, the drums march in, behind jet sounds. Joel comes in with this wonderful vocal performance, obviously played around with. The piano playing simply follows the vocals. The lyrics are weird, but follow the theme of the song. Probably one of my favorite moments on the album is the bridges (“On the plane…” and “Who’s to pay…”). You almost get the feeling like the plane is going to crash at some point, but it doesn’t…or at least Joel didn’t want to sing about that part.
The album closes in a rather funny manner with Where’s The Orchestra?. There’s a humor about it, mostly because it closes a side full of pulse-pounding songs. It really feels like exit music that should be played behind credits. The character also seems to be against all the other ones on the album, who seem to be working class, second-guessers. Still, it certainly provides a surprising, suitable finish to a rather uptight album.
The album is housed in a sleeve with lyrics on one side and an over-head shot of nearly identical houses from the prim-and-proper fifties. Then, the liner is housed in a cardboard cover. The front is an interesting shot of the identical houses from the ground staring straight at them, with Joel’s name appearing the sky and the album title in the ground. On the back, you’ll find a shot of Mr. Joel himself, sitting at a coffee table over newspapers and an ashtray. I love the design, which feels like what the American government wants you to see in the fifties, but inside you find an allegory on what it was really like.
In conclusion, is The Nylon Curtain a story about a kid from a small, working-class town (“Allentown”) who fought in Vietnam (“Goodnight Saigon”) and turned into a house-husband (“A Room Of Our Own”), troubled by his past (“Surprises”) and before he goes, turns into a self-respecting aristocrat (“Where’s The Orchestra?”)? Or is it simply a set of nine songs that go pretty well together? Whatever it truly is (I pick the latter) it still comes together for one of Joel’s best albums.