The Nylon Curtain
Columbia Records, 1982
REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/04/2000
Billy Joel isn't my favorite artist, but I certainly enjoy his work. He's fun, has a brilliant touch with songwriting, and knows how to add just the right touch of irony to his lyrics. He is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant composers of the rock era. That said, he is occasionally erratic in his quality. Some albums are better than others. Some albums, more importantly, are more consistent than others, which brings us to The Nylon Curtain.
Written and released during the opening years of Ronald Reagan's presidency in the US, The Nylon Curtain is the closest that Joel has come to a political statement. It opens with the hollow chimes of "Allentown," a stark criticism of dying industry and promises broken -- but where another artist might have been angry and vicious, Joel is merely resigned, the voice of a man already defeated. When he sings "Down in Bethlehem they're killing time," you can really feel the death of time, of people's hopes crushed by the failure of Big Business. "Allentown" is one of the greatest songs Joel has ever recorded.
Move forward. Pass "Laura," an interesting but mostly unremarkable song about co-dependency, and run smack dab into another masterpiece, "Pressure." From the moment the dry, crisp snare-and-cymbal intro hits (played by Joel regular Liberty DiVitto, a severely underappreciated drummer) and the bass begins a soft, insistent pounding like a heartbeat, you know that this is a song that will not let up. Joel's lyrics about tension and pressure in the fast-paced society of early-eighties America creates its own tension through an unresolved, fierce melody. "Pressure" is about pressure, plain and simple, and it may be the most coherent musical trigger for emotion ever written.
"Pressure" fades out, and Joel still doesn't let up. A few seconds' silence, and then the helicopters signal the beginning of "Goodnight Saigon," Joel's cold, clinical examination of the Vietnam War and its effect on those who went, those who fought, and those who survived. With a backing of acoustic guitar, it's a campfire song for the damned, harrowing in its gentleness. (One of the greatest concert moments I have ever been privileged enough to witness was Joel singing this live in Indianapolis in 1986, backed by a choir of 'Nam veterans. Words can't do it justice.)
Then you have the rest of the CD. And therein lies the problem. The Nylon Curtain is an interesting example of a CD that doesn't completely work because of the order of the songs. During the vinyl and cassette area, the break between sides (which I think, trying to remember back to my high school vinyl copy, was after "Goodnight Saigon") would have helped. On CD, The Nylon Curtain suffers from its own excellence.
There are a few good songs remaining -- "Surprises" and "Scandinavian Skies" most notably -- and a couple of throwaway tracks in "She's Right On Time" and "Where's The Orchestra?". But there is nothing to match the impact of the three singles.
Is it still a good CD? By all means. If nothing else, it contains three of Joel's greatest songs ever. Could it have been better? Probably. But it remains a testament to a dark, bleak time in America.
|This was the final Billy Joel album that I ever bought. I couldn't find it for years until in a shitty market somewhere I found it on LP. I akready had everything else on CD but I needed to hear it. I feel that this is the most angry album that Billy ever wrote. Its got that 'fuck everything' vibe about it, down to the picture of Billy on the back cover with a beard, holding a cup of coffee and reading the paper. Saying that, I rate The Nylon Curtain as sheer brilliance. The three singles off the album are classics but it's the unknowns that really impressed me. Laura is one of my favourite Billy Joel songs. There are moments on this album that it feels like David Bowie was in the studio with him, sending out his creativeness and flair. It's strange in parts and it's more desriptive than any other BJ record. While it's not going to go down in history as a classic album it certainly gets its fair share of play in my household.|