Sunday, July 7, 2013

Billy Joel Channels Bruce Springsteen And The Beatles For The Nylon Curtain

The Good: Decent musical accompaniment, Fine vocals
The Bad: Decidedly mixed lyrics, Poor album cohesion, Short
The Basics: The Nylon Curtain is a more experimental work by Billy Joel . . . and not all of the experiments work particularly well for him.

One of the nice things about taking a whole month to study the works of a musical artist is that sometimes, it leads to an understanding of the artist’s body of work one does not get when they only hear that artist’s radio-played works. In the case of my current Artist Of The Month, Billy Joel, I have been discovering a level of musical variety between his works that had never clicked with me before. Despite his reputation as “The Piano Man,” much of his career had him experimenting with a wider range of instruments and several of his early 80’s albums feature a strange number of sound effects. So, when I started listening to The Nylon Curtain in high rotation, I was pleasantly surprised by how it sounded like neither 52nd Street (reviewed here!) nor Glass Houses (reviewed here!).

Even so, not all musical experiments work and The Nylon Curtain is a good example of that. While Joel explores several different musical styles, lyrically the album is not one of his strongest or most memorable and track to track, the album sounds much more erratic than creative in its different styles. It would surprise me is most fans of the works of Billy Joel pull this album off the shelf with much frequency. While not bad, it spawned few recognizable or enduring singles and the album itself becomes forgettable because it lacks songs that have a truly powerful or universal theme to them.

With only nine tracks clocking out at 41:51, The Nylon Curtain is mercifully short, because additional length was probably not what kept this album from being truly great. The Nylon Curtain does represent the creative push of Billy Joel, however, as he wrote all nine songs and he performs the lead vocals on all of the tracks. He plays the pianos, synthesizers, Hammond organ, and melodica on the album, so his talents are very evident on this album. The only creative credit he does not receive is for producing, but given that producer Phil Ramone produced so many of Joel’s other albums before this, it seems like their working relationship was good and Joel had a lot of creative input in that regard.

The issues with The Nylon Curtain start with the vocals. Billy Joel’s vocals on The Nylon Curtain make a weird transition over the course of the album. In general, he starts at the bottom of his vocal range, belting out “Allentown” with a very manly sound to it. As the album goes on, however, he goes higher pitched and strains his voice more. He also utilizes reverb and other engineering sounds so on songs like “Scandinavian Skies,” his vocals barely sound like his own. Even when he has successful blends of vocals – like including a chorus on “Goodnight Saigon” to help get the song’s message of military camaraderie across better – the album sounds a lot like The Beatles (the opening of “Where’s The Orchestra?” has Joel sounding exactly like Paul McCartney on “Yesterday”) or (on songs like “She’s Right On Time”) Bruce Springsteen.

Instrumentally, The Nylon Curtain is all over the map. While I can (in general) live with or celebrate that, on The Nylon Curtain it sounds like an album of random songs stuck together so many of the songs sound so different from one another. While there are obvious, traditional pianos on “Allentown,” “Laura,” and “Goodnight Saigon,” Joel experiments with other sounds on the album with varying degrees of success. I, for example, like the very Russian sound of the organ on “Pressure,” but the meandering piano ballad “Where’s The Orchestra?” caps off the erratic album with such a “ho-hum” feeling that it’s hard to imagine what songs were cut to make room for it on this album.

One of the consistent and defining aspects of Billy Joel’s works is that they usually have some great examples of musical storytelling. While Joel may claim to be apolitical it is clear from his working class anthem “Allentown” that he has some pretty strong feelings on how workers are treated. Even more potent is his musical story “Goodnight Saigon,” which is essentially a military anthem. When Joel sings “ “ (“Goodnight Saigon”), it is hard not to empathize with soldiers everywhere and the horrors they face.

But, unlike so many of his other works, The Nylon Curtain has some real “what the fuck?!” moments. For example, on “Pressure” he has the lines “ “ and it is hard to determine what the hell he was thinking ever letting those lines see the light of day. After all, Sesame Street is hardly a complicated concept!

As well, some of the songs on The Nylon Curtain have some painfully obvious rhymes. With lines like “ “ on “Surprises,” it is surprising that fans kept coming back to Joel after this work! There is a sadly unsophisticated quality to several of the songs on The Nylon Curtain.

The Nylon Curtain might not be a bad album, but it is the first truly unremarkable album by Billy Joel I have yet heard. Moreover, it represents the first example of an album by Joel where the best tracks on the album are all on superior compilations.

The best song is “Goodnight Saigon,” the low point is the goofy-sounding “A Room Of Our Own.”

For other Artist Of The Month selections, please check out my reviews of:
Modern Times - Bob Dylan
Rumours - Fleetwood Mac
Bridge Over Troubled Waters - Simon & Garfunkel


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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