Sunday, July 31, 2011

Essential Albums of the '80s: Billy Joel - Glass Houses (1980)

The cover of Billy Joel's Glass Houses is a photo of the singer, rock in hand, ready to throw it throw a modern home's large plate-glass window--shattering both the window and his image. Joel had proven he wasn't afraid to make grand statements: With "The Entertainer," de'd already taken swipes at fickle music critics and programmers intent on editing his sometimes longer songs down to "radio edits." With Glass Houses, Joel attempted to break his pop crooner image with a more rock-oriented sound.

It's an image that's well-worth exploring, cultivated at the time Joel was at the height of his career. This summit arguably began in 1977 with his fifth album, The Stranger, the first he'd record with producer Phil Ramone, with whom Joel would record six albums. The Stranger became by far Joel's biggest to date, eventually being RIAA-certified Diamond in the US. It's generally regarded as his best album. It was followed in 1978 by 52nd Street, which also achieved tremendous success, going 7-times platinum and winning the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. To put context to Glass Houses, I bought both of these albums and, although I've never thought myself a Joel fan, they've really won me over. Both albums feature a compelling mix of finely crafted upbeat pop songs and piano ballads, all delivered with a deft sense of showmanship. You can see why his music lent itself to becoming a Broadway musical.

That brings us to 1980's Glass Houses, which, on "You May Be Right," begins with the sound of breaking glass before breaking into a rollicking guitar-based tune. Joel's voice sounds different now--raspier, rawer and deeper. That he's taking a different tack is immediately obvious. "Sometimes a Fantasy" follows with a very '80s sounding bass line. Like a lot of Joel songs there's a story here, one about a lonely man seeking out some late-night phone sex. There's little piano here until you get to "All for Leyna," which features pounding keys and electric guitar. No crooning balladry here.

"Don't Ask Me Why" is comparatively lighter, more in the spirit of his late '70s work. Despite its title, so is "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," which goes for a new wave sound and manages to sound a bit retro too. It's a great song, which became Joel's first song to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Most of the songs that were singles are highlights, but even many of the album tracks are good. "Sleeping with the Television On" has a bright piano and guitar melody and among the couple of ballads that come toward the end of the album, I like the gentle "Through the Long Night," on which Joel thankfully abandons his "rock" singing voice to harmonize with himself.

Glass Houses is good, but I don't care for it as much as his previous two albums. It might not rock out as much as he'd hoped, as these are still pop songs at their core, and while I think it's admirable to attempt a new sound, his softer pop sound was so great that it's a shame he didn't hold it in higher esteem. I've read that critics weren't a fan of Joel's work at the time and many skewered this album (read Rolling Stone's scathing review). They've since come around though: Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 best albums of all time lists The Stranger at #67 and 52nd Street at #348.

Best: It's Still Rock and Roll to Me, You May Be Right, Sometimes a Fantasy, Don't Ask Me Why


steilmeteor said...

nothing is as good as the classics.

ww_adh said...

Agreed. I've really enjoyed many of the '80s albums I've been listening to. Meanwhile, there are very few albums released this year that I really love. Last month was a real low point. August is only going to be marginally better.