Glass Houses (Columbia 69386)
Although he's an arrogant prick, Billy Joel has made some damn fine music in between all the asscrap he's put out. If someone put a loaded revolver to my head and forced me to pick my favorite Billy Joel record, I'd say, "Glass Houses, although you hardly needed to threaten my life! Jesus, what the hell is this anyway, some kind of pogrom? Glass Houses is a solid album full of energetic, melodic rock with the smallest proportion of schmaltzy baladeering of any Billy Joel album. Now what, are you going to shoot me in the privates or what?"
On Glass Houses, Billy seems to have something to prove, and while the tone is very much within his inexplicable "angry pop star" vein, the songs are all very inspired. Boasting the hits "You May Be Right," "Don't Ask Me Why," and "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me," plus fan favorites "All For Leyna" and "Sleeping With the Television On," the album is arguably Joel's most cohesive effort.
The downside of the album is that scrutinizing the lyrics reveals them to be cleverly jaded (at best) to Mongoloid moronic (at worst). Joel's gift for melody has always been impressive, but like Paul McCartney (his clearest influence), he really could have benefitted from a lyricist. But then, a lot of his great melodies are so jagged they almost need idiotic words to ground them in some sort of pop sensibility. "All For Leyna" is a good example, chronicling a young man's obsession with Leyna, even as he fails school and loses his appetite and friends. It's really a better plot for an afterschool special, but especially during his "angry" period, Joel seemed to specialize in these off-putting little soap operas.
What was he so "angry" about "anyway?" Not getting respect from the critics? Well, some decent lyrics might have helped with that. But then, looking back at what the critics liked at the time (Television, Patti Smith, Richard Hell), you wonder who was right. At this point, I'd be far more likely to be caught humming a Billy Joel song than a Television "song." My take on it is that Billy Joel would have been one of the all-time great Brill Building songwriters, but was born about a decade too late. He expended so much energy trying to define what his style was during a decade of ever-changing popular styles that it's possible the quintessential Billy Joel never got a fair shake. It's also possible he'd have made the same hot-headed love songs no matter what decade he was born in.
Um, oh yeah, the album. Perhaps featuring too many prog synth solos, Glass Houses nonetheless contains some of Joel's strongest melodies, which balance out most of the over-the-topness. Producer Phil Ramone keeps the musicians in check, and the album reflects his distinctive sound, crispness and punch. That sound is bound to come back at some point when all these morons put away the synths they bought six months ago and decide it's time to rock out again. The remaining songs are all consistently good, very memorable, though plagued by Joel's status-critical persona ("Close to the Borderline" is like "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me Pt. 2"). While it is certainly an intentional theme of the album to comment on Joel's New York status-symbol surroundings circa 1980, it's not an attitude that holds up particularly well. Even so, as I've said, the songs themselves make you forget how dumb some of the songs are.
Joel succeeds most when he sticks to what I feel his "true" self is, the sort of sappy troubadour who wears his (sometimes embarrassing) heart on his sleeve: "C'Etait Toi (You Were the One)" and the closing track, "Through the Long Night." The former is a sort of half-rock, half-ballad fusion that wouldn't seem out of place on an Elton John album, while the latter sounds something like what would happen if someone tried to turn The White Album into a Broadway musical ("Maharishi!").
As he grows strangely more troll-like by the minute, the days of Billy Joel the rocker may be gone. Yet we'll always have Glass Houses, with its lovably confrontational cover image of leather-and-denim-clad Billy about to hurl a big rock at a glass house. It's possible Billy Joel has the most integrity of all. Oh wait, I forgot about "River of Dreams," scratch that.
The remastered edition adds the full videos for "Sometimes a Fantasy," "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," and "All For Leyna" a nice touch, even though the videos themselves are fairly ridiculous. It's pretty forward-thinking of Joel or whoever spearheaded the reissue series of his catalog to include the related videos it gives a more complete picture of where the artist was at at the time of the release, and face it, for the past 20 years, mainstream pop has been as much about marketing and hype as about singles and albums.
The sound does seem a bit fatter, and the packaging has been reproduced well. I do sort of wish they'd included b-sides, but maybe in the future they'll release a disc of Billy's b-sides separately he's got some really good ones. See, I wanted to end with a compliment so as not to make Billy "angry" again.
Review by Regina Romulus