This time he was trying to be topical, and he does so right off the bat with “Allentown”. That he can get such a catchy hit out of a song decrying unemployment is a testament to his skill, his phrasing of “an American flag” notwithstanding. But a whole album of protest songs wouldn’t fly, so the next track reveals the other overriding touchpoint: the Beatles. “Laura” is a suitably nasty song about co-dependency, with a Ringo stroll, descending chords into sevenths, bathroom echo added to the Lennonesque sneer, and even a Harrisonian guitar solo. A lovely baroque flourish frames the song, a true hidden gem kept off the radio by a certain seven-letter adjective. “Pressure” was the most contemporary sounding track for the time, so it was the first single (and his first expensive video for the MTV age). But the song that got the most attention at the time was “Goodnight Saigon”, a tribute to Vietnam War veterans, which was an increasingly popular topic at the time. It’s one of those songs that can either inspire chills (for its realism) or ridicule (the helicopter effects) but it’s a strong statement from a guy who got through the era on a deferment.
Side two is just as musically rich. “She’s Right On Time” is an honorary holiday classic, thanks to its passing references to Christmas trees. Like “Laura” it’s framed by a pretty little piece, which turns up in the middle eight, and the harmonies come right off Abbey Road. “A Room Of Our Own” borders on being more of a list than a lyric, saved by some unexpected juxtapositions. The electric piano keeps it contemporary, but those guitar stabs in the pre-chorus are truly Fab. The Lennon voice returns on “Surprises”, a psychedelic portention of doom, taken way over the top in “Scandinavian Skies”. Here the nightmare strings of “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am The Walrus” accompany a series of airplane trips through various European cities, suggesting World War II but mostly wordplay. “Where’s The Orchestra?” stretches another metaphor to the brink, this time in the setting of a theater finale. In fact, it was about 20 years after the album was out that we realized that the melody of “Allentown” is played over the fading chords.
Due in part to its emulation of Beatle songcraft, The Nylon Curtain has certainly held up over the years. It’s the one Billy Joel album to get if you want more than just the hits, and has a lot to do with why we can’t hate the guy. When he’s good, he’s very good, and so is this album.
Billy Joel The Nylon Curtain (1982)—4