Thematically, The Nylon Curtain is aimed at baby boomers, with most of its songs’ subjects mattering more to Joel’s then-contemporaries (aged 30 and up) than to the preteen I was when I first heard it. In any case, the record somehow landed with me early on, and has stuck with me since.
The opener “Allentown” delivers an uncomplicated blue-collar-blues-type message about small-town America getting left behind in the wake of so-called progress. Not really identifying much with that, I’ve always applied the frustrations and unease of the town’s inhabitants to anyone unhappy with how life has turned out.
Besides, that “getting very hard to stay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ayeyeayea” is friggin’ irresistible. Only robots avoid singing along.
The grown-up “Laura” coming next utterly confused me as a kid (though the f-bomb landing in the middle intrigued). Now I find it one of the LP’s better tracks, a frustrated meditation on a destructive relationship. “Pressure” follows, smartly matching an urgent sound to urgent lyrics, though its impression is muted for me after oversaturation in the ’80s.
I recall Rolling Stone’s uptight Dave Marsh saying we shouldn’t like “Goodnight Saigon,” the six-and-a-half-minute paean to Vietnam vets closing Side One he insisted was shallow. But Marsh always wanted Joel and everyone else to be Bruce Springsteen. Meanwhile, I liked the song then, and I still do. And again, I can’t help but apply its message more broadly, thinking not just of doomed soldiers but how we’re all going down, eventually. Together or otherwise.
The first three tracks of Side Two aren’t remarkable but carry us along okay. The first two, “She’s Right on Time” and “A Room of Our Own,” are catchy if repetitive, and the downbeat “Surprises” a little tedious.
Then comes “Scandinavian Skies,” which Joel would introduce in concert as “the weirdest one off the new album.” Evoking “I Am the Walrus” and other blue-album-Beatles, the song ostensibly describes an international tour yet oddly conjures up the fog of war. It’s a triumph, as is the closer, a post-modern, self-reflexive ballad titled “Where’s the Orchestra?”
Like pretty much the entire disc, “Where’s the Orchestra?” suggests a kind of existential loneliness caused by the failure of expectations. The singer describes an absurd-sounding experience of going to a show he mistakenly thought was a musical.
A larger meaning, though, is obvious, especially coming at the end of this group of songs -- life fails us, and we find ourselves alone at the end with nothing but stories we’ve collected along the way. The reprise of the “Allentown” melody -- another Beatlesque thing to do -- emerging amid the fade out reminds us of this fact. A brilliant touch, and easily my favorite moment from any Joel LP.