Sunday, November 8, 2009

Billy Joel - Glass Houses (Columbia, 1980)

Much like Brady Anderson's 1996 season or Tom Cruise's performance in Magnolia, Billy Joel's seventh album was so surprisingly great that it left millions of people shaking their heads and asking, "How did he do that?!" Commercially successful but critically panned for his insidiously catchy soft rock output, Joel deliberately delivered an album that could rock with the best of the critics' new wave darlings. It was, granted, a laughable premise. Yet somehow, someway, dude actually pulled it off! Who knew that Billy Joel could rock? Who knew that he could be cool? Glass Houses is, if nothing else, bad-ass. It's a complete anomaly in the Joel catalog, casting aside the sensitive singer/songwriter persona in favor of the leather-clad lunatic who walks through Bedford-Stuy alone and calls women in the middle of the night for phone sex. While it has its moments of standard-issue Joel filler (the fluffy McCartney rip "Don't Ask Me Why", or the sappy "Through the Long Night", which foreshadowed his horrendous River of Dreams period), Glass Houses mostly adheres to a straight-ahead blend of edgy arena rock and radio-friendly new wave pop. Joel's backing band is more than up to the task, while producer Phil Ramone holds back the usual gloss and dials up the guitars and drums. This may be poser rock n' roll, but it's still great rock n' roll"! "Sometimes A Fantasy" comes off like The Cars' "Just What I Needed" on steroids, while the diatribe "It's Still Rock n' Roll To Me" really does manage to marry the rhythms of new wave to the spirit of pre-Beatles rock. Seeming homages to new wavers like Elvis Costello ("Sleeping with the Television On") and stadium bands like Foreigner ("All for Leyna") rate as some of Joel's most underrated cuts ever, and who doesn't love "You May Be Right"? The album's leadoff track, a winning emulation of late '70s Stones, offers up a brazen celebration of relationship dysfunction to counter the sentimental schlock of Joel's previous mega-hits. And as a lyricist, Joel is on-point like never before (or after!), borrowing from the punks their warped humor and bitter outlook.

I know what you're thinking: Come on, man! Billy Joel sucks balls! Fine, fine. I suppose you have a point. Based upon the past 25 years of the man's music, it's hard to argue in favor of anything he's done. So alright, ok, he sucks. But Glass Houses does not.
-Josh Rutledge

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