Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Mini Divorce Album Hidden Inside The Nylon Curtain

Poor Elizabeth Joel. Saddled with the tough years, without getting to stick around for too many of the glory years, she was forever overshadowed by her successor to the Billy Joel throne. If it's any consolation, however, she did inspire some great songs. Speaking of: it may not be a legitimate Abbey Road-style medley, but I've always felt like the first three songs on Side Two of The Nylon Curtain form sort of a divorce mini-suite. After closing Side One with Miss Saigon ("Goodnight Saigon," whatever), Billy Joel immediately switches things up with the wistful mid-tempo ballad "She's Right On Time."

The opening piano introduction almost has the feel of a Chopin nocturne, but then the imitation solo Lennon drums come in and fill up the stereo channels with a decidedly non-Chopin feel. There's also a somewhat jangly, Byrd-ish guitar meandering its way through the verses. Extra points for the bridge (at 2:44) where Billy plays the opening piano lick on a harpsichord instead, and adds some sweet, descending "hoh-wohs." All these delicate interludes contrast nicely with the slightly dissonant arena rock chorus, if I may say so.

Lyrically, "She's Right On Time" is almost like a scene from a couple on its last legs, even if they don't know it yet. At the very least, they've been together for some time and have had their ups and downs ("And it occurred to me/While I set up my Christmas tree/She never missed a cue or lost a beat/Every time I lost the meter/There she was where I would need her/Greeting me with footsteps in the street"). You rarely hear love songs about couples that have actually gone through some shit. Well, you do in country music, but not as much in pop music (and you rarely hear songs that rhyme "meter" with "need her," while we're at it). Also, despite the vague Christmas theme, funny how this one never gets played on the radio in December, sandwiched between "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Santa Baby."

In that 1982 interview Billy did with a British DJ that I keep quoting, the DJ gives Billy a pretty hard time over the song, stating, "After Side One, this one ... didn't fit ... somehow." But Billy is non-plussed and seems to have a pretty good understanding of what makes it effective:
I think, after "Goodnight Saigon, it's a bit of a "phew," you know, you gotta take a breath. And this song, "She's Right On Time" is actually about a reunion, kind of a love song but it's like a mature love song. And it's kind of "up," without being crazy "up" ... It's sort of a positive song but there's still an edge of anxiety in it.

Turn on all the Christmas lights
Cause baby's coming home tonight
I can hear her footsteps in the street
Turn the choral music higher
Pile more wood upon the fire
That should make the atmosphere complete

I've had to wait forever
But better late than never

She's just in time for me
She's right on time
She's right where she should be
She's right on time

I'm a man with so much tension
Far too many sins to mention
She don't have to take it anymore
But since she said she's coming home
I've torn out all my telephones
Soon she will be walking through that door

I may be going nowhere
But I don't mind if she's there

Left to my own device
I can always make believe
That there's nothing wrong

Still I will choose to live
In the complicated world
That we share for so long
Good or bad
Right or wrong

And it occurred to me
While I set up my Christmas tree
She never missed a cue
Or lost a beat
Every time I lost the meter
There she was when I would need her
Greeting me with footsteps in the street

I guess I should have known it
She'd find the perfect moment
Given that it wasn't a single, I was surprised to discover that not only is there a music video for "She's Right On Time," but it looks like it had a reasonably high budget. Let's just call this a date night that doesn't go exactly as planned. As entertaining as it is, I actually don't think the farcical nature of the video compliments the more contemplative mood of the song, but if judged on its own, it's pretty wacky, with Billy doing his best Inspector Clouseau impersonation, battling some pesky window blinds, an uncooperative Christmas tree, and a renegade cork.

Well, Billy must have felt a little silly having written a song about how great his wife was, right before they ultimately got divorced, but I guess he decided to throw the song onto the album anyway. If "A Room Of Our Own" is any indication, he wasn't terribly upset about the dissolution of his marriage. On an album that's overall rather claustrophobic and oppressive, "A Room Of Our Own" is sort of a jaunty, goofy breather, with Billy in jazzy imitation Ray Charles mode. Here the couple is splitting, but the man at least seems to feel pretty sanguine about the whole deal. In the spirit of Gershwin's "Let Call the Whole Thing Off," the song is a giant list of things that the woman likes vs. things that the man likes - with a cynical '80s twist?
You've got diamonds and
I've got spades
You've got pills
And I've got razor blades

You've got yoga honey
I've got beer
You got overpriced
And I got weird

But it's alright
We're the same even though we're alone
It's alright
Yes we all need a room of our own

You've got love, darlin'
I've got sex
You've got cash, mama
And I've got checks

You've got business, baby
I've got the kids
You got crowded just the way I did

But it's alright
Cause we all need a place to call home
It's alright
Yes we all need a room of our own

Well, he may have been laughing on "A Room Of Our Own," but there's nothing funny about "Surprises," the creeping, crawling, bitter kiss-off, smothered in icy synths and featuring arguably Billy's most Lennon-esque vocal of the album, out-Lennoning even "Laura" (!). "Surprises" is the sound of promises gone sour and optimism gone rotten. Not that I would know, but it seems to capture that sense of betrayal that a couple must feel when they realize that something they put so much effort into, and something they once assumed would last forever, has actually proven itself to be mortal. I love the subtle accusation buried within the phrase "It shouldn't surprise you at all." It's the kind of thing you only say to someone you know intimately, along the lines of, "Come on baby, don't play dumb with me" or "If you're so smart, then you should have seen this coming":
Don't get excited
Don't say a word
Nobody noticed
Nothing was heard
It was committed discreetly
It was handled so neatly
And it shouldn't surprise you at all
You know

Break all the records
Burn the cassettes
I'd be lying if I told you
That I had no regrets
There were so many mistakes
And what a difference it makes
But still it shouldn't surprise you at all
You know

Don't look now but you have changed
Your best friends wouldn't tell you

Now it's apparent
Now it's a fact
So marshal your forces
For another attack
You were so young and naive
I know it's hard to believe
But now it shouldn't surprise you at all
You know

What has it cost you
What have you won
The sins of the fathers
Are the sins of the sons
It was always within you
It will always continue
But it shouldn't surprise you at all
You know
I said it shouldn't surprise you at all
You know

It turns out, of course, that Billy wouldn't be sifting through the ashes of his first marriage for long. In a sudden twist of fate that most members of the human race probably considered a surprise - Billy included - a certain supermodel fiancee was about to inspire a very ... different batch of love songs.

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