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With Glass Houses, Billy Joel attempted to overhaul his image

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Being a Billy Joel fan is a complicated endeavor. “Fan,” after all, is short for “fanatic,” a word that implies a kind of loyalty that artists like Joel make challenging. At the risk of giving a backhanded compliment, sounding like an apologist, or, perhaps, making a massive understatement, Billy Joel has some shortcomings.

For one thing, you could probably count Joel’s subtle lyrics on one ham-fisted hand, and even those are likely rife with clunky metaphors, clichés, and pretentious allusions. But somehow, those shortcomings—to us fans, anyway—seem earned. Maybe it’s the monstrous record sales, or maybe it’s the fact that Joel, even at his most awkward, rarely phones it in. His gaffes, like the Boomer-baiting “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” have some balls to them. He goes for his mistakes.

Which brings us to Glass Houses. Not because it’s a mistake, but because Joel was making what he thought was his ballsiest move yet. Released in 1980 after nine years of records (the two most recent of which, The Stranger and 52nd Street, had won a combined four Grammys and respectively reached No. 2 and No. 1 on the Billboard 200), Joel saw Glass Houses as a way to change his reputation from a soft-rock guy to something else entirely.

“I was taking quite a critical pasting by 52nd Street because of the commercial success that I had,” said Joel in a 2010 interview on the syndicated radio show In the Studio. “I was aware that there had been a great deal of, I guess we could call it, ‘Billy Joel Saturation’ for close to three years... Now I could have come out with a record that would have guaranteed a certain amount of sales. Just by repeating either The Stranger album or the 52nd Street album, by doing something similar... Frankly, I would have been bored to do that. I would have been a dead duck, career-wise. You have to discard an audience to pick up another one.”

He added that he wanted to “shatter that image” of the corny balladeer, an analogy that starts with the record’s cover featuring a leather-clad Joel winding up to hurl a stone through a glass house. In his essay “Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink,” Chuck Klosterman writes that Joel’s drive to escape his own schlock-filled renown is what drew him to the album. “What I heard on Glass Houses (and what I still hear) is somebody who is bored and trapped by his own success, all of which are sentiments that have never stopped making sense to me.” He adds that Joel will never be cool—not ironically cool; not genuinely cool; not even interestingly, aggressively uncool. “Since his songs were so radio-friendly,” wrote Klosterman, “it was assumed that he was the FM version of AM. This is what happens when you don’t construct an archetypal persona: If you’re popular and melodic and faceless, you seem meaningless.”

In his excellent profile of Joel in last week’s New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten theorized that his lack of coolness (and critical respect) was due to a combination of factors. “His default expression was a kind of petulant scowl. Onstage he could be enthralling, but he had the disadvantage of sitting at a piano. He often wore a jacket and tie—in earth tones.” As for sex appeal, he quotes Joel himself as “look[ing] like the guy who makes pizza.”

So: decidedly not cool, trapped, bored, tired of being treated as faceless, meaningless, and unattractive. What’s interesting about Glass Houses is that it doesn’t sound like the record someone in that position would make; it doesn’t sound like a reinvention. Maybe it’s just the benefit of years of radio-filled hindsight, but it sounds very much like Billy Joel. His rock “edge” is here (“All For Leyna”), as is his panache for a ballad (“Don’t Ask Me Why”). In many ways, Glass Houses is his most Billy Joel record. Sure, he’d never tried out the new wave stylings of “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me,” the power-chord-fueled “Sometimes A Fantasy,” and “Close To The Borderline” before 1980, but the lyrical tics and affected accents, the crooned “oooooh”s and saxophone solos, they’re all here.

And they’re great. Simply put, Glass Houses is Billy Joel’s best collection of songs, even better than the hit-laden The Stranger. The aforementioned hits sound better in context than on his many best-of compilations (or on classic-rock radio), and the more obscure cuts are excellent. “Sleeping With The Television On,” with its propulsive pop edge, may be the most underrated Billy Joel song. “I Don’t Want To Be Alone”—with mic pops that make Joel sound like the bar-band singer he strove to be on Glass Houses—is a charmingly self-deprecating chronicle of loserdom.

And for a guy so concerned about shedding his balladeer image, Joel continued to write some damn excellent ballads. The Beatles-esque “Don’t Ask Me Why,” especially its sharp bridge, stands as one of Joel’s most offhandedly winning songs, and “C’Etait Toi (You Were The One),” though Joel’s French is undisputedly terrible (a fact that has since made him disown the song), is lovely. Album closer “Through The Long Night” is another fine McCartney workout; it wouldn’t sound out of place on Revolver alongside the similarly forlorn “For No One.” The production by Phil Ramone (who produced every Joel record from 1977’s The Stranger to 1986’s The Bridge) is clear and, refreshingly for Joel, straightforward.

Is it perfect? No. “Close To The Borderline” is a fun but ultimately toothless rant against Son Of Sam-era New York, and “You May Be Right,” after years of, well, Billy Joel Saturation, has not aged very well. And like most Billy Joel albums, Glass Houses didn’t get rave reviews. In his New Yorker article, Paumgarten wrote, “Joel wasn’t what the critics were looking for in the mid-’70s, when punk was knocking on the door. Their notions of authenticity, however flimsy, didn’t allow for his kind of poppy piano tristesse.” Critics weren’t any kinder in 1980, particularly Rolling Stone: “[I]t’s obvious,” wrote Paul Nelson, “that this Long Islander regards rock & roll as a braggart’s game in which the blowzy, blustering good guy—i.e., himself—can lord it over everybody else and crow to his heart’s content without taking any responsibility for his actions. Real kid stuff. The spoiled-brat special... Billy Joel writes smooth and cunning melodies, and what many of his defenders say is true: His material’s catchy. But then, so’s the flu.” Ouch.

“Defenders” is a telling choice of words. As fans, we’re crouched in ready position, aware that the digs are coming. But we’re steadfast. Sure, Joel’s a brat, and sure, he’s blustering, but he’s our brat. He’s flawed, and that imperfection is what makes Billy Joel interesting, and what makes Glass Houses—part tough-guy posturing, part Tin Pan Alley sincerity, all quintessentially Billy Joel—so fascinating. We love him just the way he is.