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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Billy Joel: The Nylon Curtain

BILLY JOEL: THE NYLON CURTAIN (1982)

1) Allentown; 2) Laura; 3) Pressure; 4) Goodnight Saigon; 5) She's Right On Time; 6) A Room Of Our Own; 7) Surprises; 8) Scandinavian Skies; 9) Where's The Orchestra?

In Billy's own words, this is the material he is most proud of, and that would be reason enough to get scared. A concept album about the lives and fortunes of baby boomers at the start of the Reagan era — a conscious decision to push into Springsteen territory, made by a man whose lyrical ta­lents, emotional insights, and sense of music-to-lyrics adequacy have no hopes of ever coming close to Bruce's (regardless of how one actually feels about Bruce). Just a couple extra wrong steps here, and The Nylon Curtain could easily turn into Billy's worst embarrassment.

Funny, but it isn't. Knowing full well his musical preferences and his strong and weak sides, it is not to Springsteen that Billy turns for inspiration, but rather to the same old crowds: the Beatles, Elton John, Jeff Lynne, and various other late Sixties' / early Seventies' artists. Almost every single melody here is deeply rooted in one influence or another, leaving pretty limited space for creativity — but when the influences are that good, and the digesting is carried on with sufficient intelligence and craft, and, most importantly, when this retro vibe prevents the artist from getting swallowed and assimilated by all that new Eighties stuff that he wouldn't be able to conquer any­way, what sense would there be in complaining?

To tell the truth, unless you really sit down with the lyrics sheet, you might not even get a sense of how «self-important» the album claims to be. A song like ʽAllentownʼ, with its honest, but not particularly poetic portrait of out-of-work blue-collar workers in a depressed community, has garnered much discussion, mostly concentrating on the song's words — has Billy been able to paint a proper picture of these people's lives? is he being respectful or insulting?... But musically, the song is just a somewhat routine, inoffensive acoustic rocker, mildly catchy, with a vocal part that is strangely buried in the mix as if the singer were a bit shy of his own voice (this kind of mixing is a common thing, for instance, on George Harrison's solo records). It isn't better or worse than dozens, if not hundreds, of similar songs. And its symbolic factory whistle at the be­ginning, as well as its symbolic industrial clanging at the end, are just tacked on for information's sake — there is nothing in the music that would suggest a connection with disillusioned, despai­ring workers. Inadequate? If you bother to check the lyrics, for sure. If you don't, ʽAllentownʼ is not about blue-collar suffering. It's about tapping your feet and strumming your air guitar.

Or let us take another of the album's most famous tracks, the Vietnam epic ʽGoodnight Saigonʼ. Would you really be willing to participate in a discussion of how precisely Billy has managed to convey the lives, feelings, and memories of the veterans? Honestly? Chirping crickets and heli­copters aside, this is a cozy acoustic ballad with a rather clumsy power chorus («and here is something for our friends in the arena to get wild to», Billy probably thought as he threw in the "and we would all go down together" bit), one that would have fit in much better with memories of your troubled, but innocent childhood rather than the living hell of Vietnam. Which is, really, just the way I hear it in my head — there is no more genuine Vietnam in ʽGoodnight Saigonʼ than could be found in, say, ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ. Which, as far as I am concerned, does not prevent ʽGoodnight Saigonʼ from being a pleasant song (if you only take out the «gung-ho chorus»).

Or take ʽPressureʼ — with a title like that, you'd expect the song to be about the hardships and tension of everyday life in the modern age, and lyrically, it is, but musically, it is completely dominated by a synthesizer riff with a ridiculously sterile tone (this is probably the most «mo­dern» Billy got on this album for 1982's standards) and a chord structure that sort of walks the line between nursery rhyme and football field chant. (Maybe that's what all the Peter Pan and Sesame Street references are all about?). Overall, the song is a little weird, a little funny, definite­ly catchy (in a good way? in a bad way? still trying to tell), but «serious», no.

And then there's all the rest, where you just gotta sit back and admire, or despise, or take into neutral consideration Billy's chameleonesque nature. ʽLauraʼ sounds almost precisely like Jeff Lynne and ELO circa 1972-73, vocals, harmonies, guitars, strings, tempos, dynamics, the works. ʽA Room Of Our Ownʼ picks up the rhythmics of the Beatles' ʽShe's A Womanʼ and adds a few extra layers for some extra fun. ʽScandinavian Skiesʼ, with its drawn-out, «floating» sound elici­ted from all the instruments and vocals, aims for light, happy-but-ominous psychedelia. And in the not-so-big finale, ʽWhere's The Orchestra?ʼ suddenly remembers about the artist's vaudevil­lian roots and jumps to self-irony — arguably the album's best lyrical moment is the opening to this particular song: "Where's the orchestra? Wasn't this supposed to be a musical?" Well... you said it, Mr. Joel. You really said it.

I like this album — not a lot, just a normal, regular like, you know. The certified Billy Joel hater will hate it for being too pretentious — I don't really manage to hear that pretentiousness. I would never understand a blue-collar worker who'd want to make ʽAllentownʼ his personal sacred an­them, or a Vietnam veteran who would shed tears to ʽGoodnight Saigonʼ, or, for that matter, a girl called Laura who'd go on to say that the song ʽLauraʼ really nails all her troubles. But I wouldn't mind playing The Nylon Curtain some more, every once in a while: it is diverse, sufficiently creative, reasonably memorable, almost free of annoying moments, and if you take it in its his­torical context, it sounds amazingly good for a 1982 album recorded by a «veteran». In fact, it sounds fairly timeless — an even bigger thanks to Phil Ramone here, who was able to safeguard Joel from the easy pitfalls of the new decade — and I see no reason whatsoever to deprive the al­bum of its well-deserved, if a little tepid, thumbs up. Nice stuff. Nothing too serious. Except, maybe, that he says the word "fucking" once, but I sincerely hope this isolated fact will not suffice to turn your whole world upside down.

Check "The Nylon Curtain" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Nylon Curtain" (MP3) on Amazon

8 comments:

  1. So I suppose Goodbye Saigon is not exactly like Metallica's One .....

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  2. The certified Billy Joel hater will hate it because they are pretentious. Is how that line should read...

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  3. Since Billy Joel has never been a blue collar worker, a Vietnam vet, a girl named Laura etc. pretentious works for me.

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  4. Ok no one here is being pretentious but songwriters that only write about themselves and their experiences are just putting incredible limits on their creativity

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    1. Really? If only John Lennon had written about other people and their experiences rather than his own, IMAGINE how unlimited his creativity could have been!

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  5. Well, I like Billy more than you do, so I think this is his last good album. The Beatles (or Beatles-via-ELO, such as “Scandinavian Skies” – I thought that, too) is very obvious on some of these. Billy said that het told Liberty DeVito to play like Ringo, and “Laura” is a perfect example. I really like the three big singles on side 1. The rest of the songs have lyrics that are more off-kilter and surreal. This is very unlike his writing on previous albums, so this always makes interesting listening. I guess he really couldn’t try this approach more than once and get away with it (we weren’t going to get his Magical Mystery Tour after this Sgt. Pepper’s.., by many means). So, it had to be pretty much downhill from here.

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