“The Nylon Curtain” is perhaps the shining achievement in the illustrious career of Billy Joel. Sure, “The Stranger” sold more records and spawned more hits than Peter Rose, and a lot of fans will argue that “Glass Houses,” “52nd St.” and “Piano Man” are better albums, but for my money it doesn’t get better than “The Nylon Curtain.”
“The Nylon Curtain” begins with “Allentown,” a bittersweet lament about Pennsylvania’s factory workers. Joel makes it clear with this opening track that the lyrical element on this record will be different than what you’re used to from him. The songs on “Nylon Curtain” are far more introspective and serious than any of his previous efforts.
Sonically, this record breaks ground as well. Billy Joel had always been in debt to the Beatles, but never before had he used the influence to such an extraordinary and effective degree. This is abundantly clear on the second track, “Laura,” which could double as a Beatle outtake. “Laura” tells the story of a troubled lover and the toll her depression takes on everyone around her; this isn’t exactly “Just the Way You Are” territory. “Pressure” follows in the same paranoid vein, but with a synthesized classical riff as the lead. Joel seems pissed off when he exclaims, “you have no scars on your face.” What is he so mad about? Maybe it’s the Vietnam War.
A lot of critics despise “Goodnight Saigon,” Joel’s ‘Nam tribute; they write it off as overwrought and bloated, with it’s “and we would all go down together” chorus, helicopter sound effects and storyteller lyric. I, however, love it for exactly those same reasons. Sometimes subtlety is the last thing a songwriter should embellish. Today’s artists rarely go over the top ENOUGH.
The next couple of songs are a bit of filler. “She’s Right On Time” has a nice melody and while “A Room of Our Own” has its heart in the right place, it misfires with silly lyrics and forced anger. The real gems on this album are the final two tracks.
You wont find two more disparate songs on any Billy Joel album then “Scandinavian Skies” and “Where’s The Orchestra?”, the former because of its arrangement and the latter because of its surrealist lyrics. “Skies” starts off like any Joelian, late-album deep cut. It’s disguised as a pretty little ballad, and it’s rolling along, until about two minutes in when it decides to drop acid and freak out. The result is somewhere between a John Lennon drug dirge and an ELO B-side. “Where’s the Orchestra?” is really just a serious of questions set to a somber, almost dull composition. Joel asks no one in particular things like, “How the hell could I have missed the overture?” and “I assumed the show would have a song, so I was wrong.”
The end of “The Nylon Curtain” acts as an antithesis to everything that Billy Joel had created up to that point (except for maybe the “Streetlife Serenade” album); this is why it should be recognized for what it is, the most important Billy Joel album ever created.