On Storm Front, his first studio album since The Bridge in 1986, Billy Joel throws off pop complacency for an angry, committed — and often moving — exploration of life in modern America. Defining the album’s theme of lost innocence is a core of songs that evokes the desperate disorientation that has suffused American consciousness over the past decade. Storm Front‘s aggressive tone is immediately established by the surging slide guitar and growling blues harp that kick off “That’s Not Her Style,” the record’s opening track. But the album gets down to business with its second cut, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Storm Front‘s propulsive first single, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” sounds the alarm on a society that has lost its moral center and is spinning out of control. Telescoping forty years of history into a feverish, chronological roll call of political leaders, pop icons and world events, Joel charts the steady erosion of our national spirit since 1949 — incidentally, the year of his birth. The singer captures the carefree mood of ’49 in the first of a series of musical time capsules: “Harry Truman, Doris Day, red China, Johnnie Ray/South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio.” But as the song rushes toward the present, it catalogs the crises that have compromised our dreams. Ending with a spirit-crushing litany of contemporary social horrors — “Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz/Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law” — Joel shouts, “I can’t take it anymore!”
The broad cultural sweep of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” finds a personal focus in the record’s next track, “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’.” The song tells a haunting tale about a Long Island fisherman who cannot provide for his family because government regulations have crippled his livelihood. With its slow, martial beat and plaintive, gull-like violin squalls, “Alexa” casts a dreamlike image of a wrecked man “trolling Atlantis,” navigating a lost world. The song reaches an aching climax when, stirred by the memory of his fisherman father, the man cries aloud, lamenting the death of his family legacy. That Joel’s daughter is named Alexa Ray only heightens the song’s resonance.
Joel’s other protagonists experience vague frustrations and longings. The character in the hard-driving “I Go to Extremes” futilely tries to account to his girlfriend for his inconsistent moods and wavering confidence. The lover in “Shameless” sings with perverse pride about his enslavement to his woman’s affections, while his swaggering alter ego in “Storm Front” disowns domestic bliss and sets sail on a sea of temptation.
Not all of the weather on Storm Front is so heavy, however. Joel offers heartening assurances on “When in Rome,” an uplifting, R&B-inflected anthem about love’s survival. And on the stately “Leningrad,” Joel chronicles how his 1987 visit to the Soviet Union melted his cold-war fears.
Musically, Storm Front struts with insistent rock & roll authority. Foreigner’s Mick Jones, who coproduced the album with Joel, replaces Joel’s longtime collaborator Phil Ramone; as a result, the record boasts a muscular drum sound, gritty guitar work and some rousing blues-rock whomp. The producers steer clear of the Joel-Ramone penchant for epic suites and stylistic pastiche in service to Storm Front‘s sturdy rock & roll heart.
In dramatic fashion, Joel provides the otherwise tempestuous Storm Front with a coda of exquisite grace. The hymnlike “And So It Goes” takes the record’s turbulent emotions and stills them in a moment of quiet revelation. Accompanied only by a piano and a discreet synthesizer, Joel proposes emotional vulnerability and reconciliation to life’s uncertainties as a route to secular redemption. It is a note of startling maturity, at once mournful and bracing. And as the final word on an album that takes a serious look at a troubled world, it reflects the hard-earned wisdom of a no longer innocent man.