Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Album Review: The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel

The Nylon Curtain (1982) is arguably Billy Joel's finest album.  It is a collection of songs directly inspired by the Beatles and the bittersweet realities of the Reagan era.

  The opener ,"Allentown," is a lament about the economic issues that plagued the Midwest in the 1980s.  Joel writes about the high unemployment and the declining expectations of the new generation, "every child had a pretty good shot of getting at least far as their old man got/but something happened on the way to that place and they threw an American flag in our face." 

In a similar vein is "Goodnight Saigon," his only direct song about the Vietnam War.  By the 1980s the passions of the had diminished and the narrative of the began to change. President Reagan, who called the conflict a "noble war," moved Americans to forget the painful politics of the era and placed emphasis on the sacrifice of the soldiers.  Popular films like The Deer Hunter and First Blood were examples of the shift in attitude on Vietnam by avoiding the politics of the era.  The song is written from the point of view of a soldier on the ground who did his duty in spite of the horrible conditions he faced.  Joel also avoided the politics and wrote about remembering those who continue to struggle after the war - very much in the tone of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Other highlights include "Laura", "Surprise, Surprise," and "Scandinavian Skies."  On "Laura" Joel channels the spirit of John Lennon (even sounds like him) in a song similar to "Sexy Sadie" and "I'm So Tired" from the White album.  Meanwhile, "Surprise, Surprise" is a nod to Wings era McCartney.  One of the hidden gems in Joel's catalogue, "Scandinavian Skies," is a cryptic song about a haunting tour through Europe.  Is it about the travails of touring?  On closer reading there are references to holocaust (Joel's father was a survivor), punctuated by the haunting strings, in lyrics like "The Sins of Amsterdam were still a recent surprise" and "the tour of Germany Was bleeding into our eyes."  The pristine sound of the song captures the majesty of European civilization, but also the darkness that lays beneath all the "culture" of Europe.

Whatever one's opinion of Joel's later career and the fact he has not made an album since 1993, it remains a soundtrack for the baby boom generation.  His later albums moved away from social commentary to banal pop songs, devoid of the adventurous production in The Nylon Curtain.  Perhaps MTV is to blame for destroying the singer-songwriter era and putting image above all else. Some flourished in this environment, but most did not.  But that's another story.

1 comment:

  1. This was the only Billy Joel album I owned for a long time. Truly one of his better efforts, since (for the most part) he wasn't thinking of the pop charts. WNEW-FM in NYC played the heck out of it, so that helped.