Billy Joel is angry, and he is searching, and on his 1982 release "The Nylon Curtain," he is at his most cynical, introspective and yet most creative. From the opening whistle of "Allentown," this album by the once mostly harmless radio-friendly Joel of the 1970's has become something noticably different. If you've heard all of his previous albums from Cold Spring Harbor on, you'd notice the odd darker change. This is a more mature Joel remembering his past with sad twists.
The wonderful East Coast cities of his youth in the late 1950's and early 1960's are being dragged down through the failing policies of President Reagan, and as the backlash for the first time hits Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, they don't like it, and neither does Joel. However, manned with a piano and a wonderful imagination of his America and it's people, Joel tells the stories many citizens here couldn't or can't, and long the way no one is spared, from the U.S. government on down to his own demanding psyche.
9 songs totaling just over 55 minutes:
1 - Allentown - The Pennsylvania town, home to one of the more massive grouping steel mills on the East Coast, began to topple and fall under the weight of 1980's White house policy, and thousands and thousands of men and women who never knew unemployment now felt the economic crush of deals created by Reagan. The American flag all of a sudden didn't seem so star-spangled, and the Statue Of Liberty, once the the beacon of hope throughout the world, began to darken and fade under hopelessness ans starvation right on it's once fat shores. This song was the call to alarm in the 1980's, but very few listened at the time until it was too late.
2 - Laura - a wonderful psychotic Beatles-esque rambling tune about a woman who can and will eventually destroy Billy, but he makes it sound so wonderful! One of my favorite songs off the album without a doubt, I mean check out these lyrics:
"I'm her machine, and she can punch all the keys
She can push any button I was programmed through"
The guitar solo at the end is so George Harrison, the orchestra playing throughout the entire song, it's just a great song about obsession, a theme that would be visited many more times on the
album, which brings us to
3 - Pressure - one of the more famous songs by Joel, but believe me, it's not about anyone; Joel indites himself by accusing himself of going too hard too fast, and as he screams into the mirror he knows where the problem not only lies but where the solution is as well: in himself. He's making himself unwell, and he roots out the causes - too much television, too much print magazines, too much excessive self-loathing, and if he doesn't let it go he will explode. A well-crafted song about the problems - and solutions to - himself.
4 - Goodnight Saigon - I went into the Army in November 1984, and I had only a couple of cassettes to listen to during Basic Training: this album was one of them, and I listened to this song endlessly. This is Joel's homage to the older brothers who went to Viet Nam and never returned, and with every crescendo, you can feel the buildup of emotion and anger and fear in the lyrics. Joel told the story of reminiscing with razor-sharpness, and captured the emotions of the brotherhood and camaraderie of war with some rah-rah, but with a lot of regrets as well. Also one of the best cuts on the album. (Even as the years have passed, this song always gets me, as America's vets - now as well as then - still don't get the real honest hero's welcome they should get, because we as Americans are too busy trying to step over homeless people to get to McGarbage to stuff our fat faces with artificial food.)
5 - She's Right on Time - this song is so odd as some have classified it as a "Christmas song" or at the very least a "holiday song." It isn't, by any stretch of the means. The mention of Christmas lights being turned on and Christmas trees being set up only means there's been lights hanging up somewhere for probably a long time and a Christmas tree was "needed" for her. He's been alone for a very long time, and his female partner, who sounds like she ran away or left him because of either his abusiveness or his undisclosed mental illness, is finally coming back home to him. Check the lyrics:
"I'm a man with so much tension
Far too many sins to mention
She don't have to take it anymore
But since she said she's coming home
I've torn out all my telephones
Soon she will be walking through that door
I may be going nowhere
But I don't mind if she's there
She's just in time for me
She's right on time
She's right where she should be
She's right on time..."
Maybe she ran off on him around Christmas, and he's trying to re-create the wonderfulness of what was once then - and then to rip out all the telephones, and doing so much to wait patiently for her to walk right in the door... well, I don't know about you, but this is one of the oddest and scariest songs by Joel, not cheeriest...
6 - A Room of Our Own - this sounds like an outtake, but it does make sense, if you once again look at it from Joel's psychotic sense of humor. This is a twisted take on a Beatles love song, and Joel knows this was the hardest thing he could put on wax at the time - but it's still screwy, and the chorus is punctuated by staccato guitar riffs ala The Beatles. She's got this, I've got that, and we function - barely. The total opposite of a classic Beatles tune, and this works.
7 - Surprises - One day you're gonna wake up and find out you're old. The stomach isn't as flat as it was, the hair is looking a little thinner, and your tastes at 20 will no longer apply at 40. Then, as some have done for a long long time, simply freak out and have a mid-life crisis. Divorce, mental breakdowns, a radical change in lifestyle? One day you're gonna realize you couldn't handle it and maybe you need help. Maybe you will need that help.
8 - Scandinavian Skies - the greatest tribute to the Beatles by someone of this stature. A (and if only implied) drug-filled romp with a fictional group of tourists on an Middle European tour, and what happened in Amsterdam, Norway and West Germany probably stayed there - at least until Billy wrote this song about at last, in Oslo, the power dropped, and the fans cried, and by the way, Billy can still play the blues all night... this has "I Am The Walrus" written all over it's DNA, but it's a wonderful light piece of psychedelica.
9 - Where's the Orchestra? - a short piece of music to conclude the album. It's about as personal and thought-provoking as it sounds, as the singer is lost after walking in too late on the performance: there's no music, the plot is kinda pointless, the dialogue is being performed by a once-great star who's never performed live, and when it ended, the applause gave way to empty chairs that have nothing left to give, the hall is silent, and Joel is left with his thoughts in an uncertain place, and not just about what he's seen in the theater.
This album, the concept, and it's delivery are more than worthy of five healthy stars.
After listening to this album for almost 30 years, there is one thing I can still say, and it's that it has always brought great emotions from me, whether I wanted it or not. It was timely, and it made you think, and that's very rare in a music album of any kind anymore. I want to commend Billy Joel for following his path - he was once a boxer, and even was part of a hard rock band in the late 60's called Attila, a horrible heavy-metal experiment - and has proven himself over and over and over. This album is a highlight of mine, and is one of my top 100 albums to bring to a deserted island.
The album as a whole evokes emotions, fits and happiness and rage, and cools you off at the end with a nice bit of reflection. This was the last album Billy Joel released in the 1980s that sold under 2 million copies upon it's initial release. Billy was ready, and this only proves that he had a wonderful songwriting power, even when he himself at one time didn't believe it.
I recommend it heartily, and give it to a friend if they're having a bad day, they may need to hear a little craziness from someone else who totally understands.
(Thanks for reading, and please don't forget to leave a comment or vote if you liked my review - or hated it!)