“Goodnight Saigon,” the turning point of Billy Joel’s ambitious new album, may well be remembered as the ultimate pop-music epitaph to the Vietnam War. Into a pastoral soundscape a sputtering helicopter ominously steals, followed by martially elegiac piano chords and, finally, by Billy Joel’s tight, wound-up voice, higher and tenser than usual: “We met as soul mates on Parris Island/We left as inmates from an asylum/And we were sharp, as sharp as knives.” On the word sharp, his voice becomes so fragile it almost breaks, and on knives, it suddenly jabs in sharp, strobelike echoes. “And we were so gung-ho to lay down our lives,” he continues, again hesitant and sounding all of about nineteen.
As the song unfolds, Joel’s “we” becomes every American soldier, living and dead, who fought in Southeast Asia. Familiar images accumulate — Playboy, Bob Hope, the Doors, smoking hash. Twice during the song, Joel’s voice swells into a hearty male chorus—”And we would all go down together/We said we’d all go down together”—full of swaggering camaraderie. Finally, the song fades back into the night on a whir of retreating rotors, into the jungle, leaving the memory of that chorus of hale and hearty ghosts.
While “Goodnight Saigon” is The Nylon Curtain‘s stunner, there are other songs in which Joel’s blue-collar smarts, Broadway theatricality and rock attitude blend perfectly. “Allentown,” his portrait of a crumbling Pennsylvania mining city in which the American dream has died hard, could be a scene from The Deer Hunter put to music. Like “Goodnight Saigon,” its tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct. And that directness is presumably what the album title refers to. For in one way or another, the songs on this LP are concerned with the tearing away of protective emotional filters to reveal naked truths.
But for every starkly descriptive song like “Goodnight Saigon,” there’s another that teases with ambiguous images and aural finery. While Billy Joel has long admitted to idolizing Paul McCartney. The Nylon Curtain‘s mixture of brutal directness and tantalizing ambiguity suggests the late-Sixties John Lennon more than McCartney. “Surprises” and “Scandinavian Skies” boast baroque, heavily synthesized arrangements in which Joel’s singing is electronically distorted to sound as down-under as Lennon’s in “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus.”
In “Surprises,” the singer views his own life and creativity as a series of deterministic changes (“The sins of the fathers are the sins of the sons”). And in the eerily lovely “Scandinavian Skies,” an airline tour of Europe conjures up a ghostly apprehension of World War II. Both cuts use elaborate production to enhance an air of mystery. And “Scandinavian Skies,” if viewed as a companion piece to “Goodnight Saigon,” suggests that Joel may see war and devastation as the inevitable future of a disillusioned world.
The Nylon Curtain also has its share of lighter, more conventional fare. In “A Room of Our Own,” Joel lists a couple’s irreconcilable differences (“You’ve got yoga, honey, I’ve got beer”) against a bouncy, tap-dancing tune. And “Where’s the Orchestra?” — a wistful McCartney-esque curtain closer—also keeps to a vaudevillian spirit. The album’s only clinker is the venomous “Laura,” which mines the same vein of misogyny as “Stiletto.” But it’s offset by the expansive love song, “She’s Right on Time.”
Coming after the frolicsome but forgettable Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain finds Billy Joel on higher artistic ground than ever before. Until this album, Joel’s socially acute songs have been set mostly on his own home turf; “Captain Jack,” “Piano Man” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” defined the New York suburban milieu in bold, if occasionally awkward, strokes. On The Nylon Curtain. “Goodnight Saigon” and “Allentown” find Joel tackling subjects farther from home and larger than his own neighborhood, and they bring out the painterly side of him that has always identified with that master of American light, Edward Hopper.
Instead of inspiring Joel’s scorn, the way suburbia has done, they’ve challenged his eye and stirred his compassion.”