At his commercial and creative peak, Billy Joel produced a number of solid albums, most of which emulated the Beatles' Abbey Road, an album Joel worships (no argument here), and they made the case for him as a strong pop-rock singer/songwriter in the tradition established by Neil Sedaka and Carole King. But Joel wanted to be more than that; he wanted to be a serious artiste. Hence The Nylon Curtain, his 1982 release.
In the early 1980s, Joel no longer seemed to want to make an album like Abbey Road; suddenly, he seemed to be trying to make Abbey Road itself. The Nylon Curtain was meant to be a theme album about the diminished dreams and expectations of the Baby Boom generation. Its title is an obvious play on the Iron Curtain, suggesting an invisible wall separating Baby Boomers like himself from the rest of society. That's right, Joel didn't just want to make grand music; he wanted to make a grand statement. Sonically, he did a good job; there are some wonderful arrangements and a good deal of energetic musicianship here as Billy steps back a bit and lets his band shine with some crisp guitar riffs and punchy drums. Many of the songs, however, are actually quite thin. Some of them are actually embarrassing. Joel is a lot of things, but he's not a pop troubadour like John Lennon or Bob Dylan.
Joel's social commentary is somewhat weak. "Surprises," a cynical tune about the effects of expectations that are way too optimistic, is a critique of overreaching that Joel's ambitions on this album contradict. "Pressure" is a song that has some sharp observations about the weight of responsibility, but some of Joel's other words here seem as petulant as his vocal. And then there's "Goodnight Saigon," a Vietnam War ballad that sounds like Joel only wrote it because a song about Vietnam was de rigeur for an album aimed at Baby Boomers. To write it, Joel actually researched what everyday life was like for the soldiers and Marines who fought in that war, as if he were preparing for a term paper. He got the details right, but there's no feeling of what it was actually like to be there. A good song about a war should reflect the experience of combat; this song only gives the facts of it, like, well, a term paper. Moreover, "Goodnight Saigon" doesn't offer Joel's own opinion on the rationale for the war, a war that divided a country and haunted a generation - his. Except for the title and a few of the lyrics, "Goodnight Saigon" (the title isn't in the lyrics) could have easily been about World War II or Korea, and it wouldn't make a difference.
This is all a shame, because The Nylon Curtain does have a few good moments, like the vivid honesty of "Allentown," about chronic unemployment, with its melding of guitar and piano with industrial-machinery sound effects. Even "Pressure" and "Goodnight Saigon" have effective sounds, specifically the synthesizer lines on "Pressure" that feel as claustrophobic as the song itself and the subtle helicopter rotors in "Goodnight Saigon." But no matter how much Beatlesque production Joel relies on, his songs have to stand up to it, and they mostly don't - I can't even explain the relationship songs on this album, like "Laura" and "A Room Of Our Own." Joel redeems himself with the closing cut, "Where's The Orchestra?", a tale of regret and disillusionment. It's a poignant piano ballad that embodies Joel's personal style better than much of the other material on this LP. Dave Marsh said that although The Nylon Curtain "was Joel begging to be taken seriously, there simply isn't any way to deal with him except as a lightweight." Ironically, we took Joel more seriously when he lightened up. To understand the Baby Boomers' mindset in the early eighties, stick with Donald Fagen's The Nightfly instead. (I'll review that later.)
(This is my last record review for awhile; I'm going to concentrate instead in the coming weeks on commentary on the 2016 Olympics.)