Billy Joel Colin Irwin - Essay

Colin Irwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The aggression [on "Glass Houses"] is just too deliberately calculating; and aren't the scenarios—so vividly portrayed—just a little self-consciously conceived? When in doubt, Joel does seem overly intent on sending his verses into grubby bars and desperate crises of loneliness with interesting accessories like "brandy eyes" and "sweating bullets"….

I'm not sure I can believe Joel on "Glass Houses".

The album spends much of its time meditating on insecurity, and Joel is most effective when he freely parades his own frailties in this direction, via self-mockery. There's one glorious track, "I Don't Want To Be Alone", in which he sketches a reprobate character repeatedly wronging his partner and constantly being wracked with self-recrimination as a result. Its strength is the undercurrent of humour (the absurd vision he creates of the hero) which is his most potent weapon, yet one that's often deferred in preference to the moody macho image, doing his wronging without the saving grace of being a clown too.

Another honourable exception is "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me", in which he cheerfully chides the fickleness of fashion…. Elsewhere, though, there's an unhealthy abundance of self-seriousness—"Sleeping With The Television On" has a double-edged moral (again, the subject's insecurity) but while "Close To The Borderline" comes on like a raging rocker, it's jammed with an almost maudlin theme concerning the pressures of life (yawn).

A generous smattering of schmaltz doesn't help. "C'était Toi" smacks of "Michelle", right down to the outburst of French; and "Through The Long Night" is rescued only by a perverse vocal style that has him sounding like Wreckless Eric on tranquillisers. Bizarre tangents like this are amusing, but they don't alleviate the frustration of knowing what he's capable of and hearing him opt instead for the tried and predictable….

Joel's philosophising is made accessible by the quality of the decoration, and his hook-lines are determined and deadly—it's fun picking out the ones that'll see you pleasantly through tomorrow's coffee-break and the ones that'll drive you to distraction. I suspect the latter will prevail.

Colin Irwin, "Schmaltz House," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), March 8, 1980, p. 24.