For The Record: Glass Houses

By Devin McGrath-Conwell

In 1980, Billy Joel was established as a global superstar in the music world. He had released a string of remarkably successful albums, starting with 1976’s Turnstiles, which brought him well into the public eye with anthems such as “New York State of Mind.” This popularity exploded the next year when he released the mega-popular The Stranger, which included such Joel standards as “Only the Good Die Young” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” further garnering Joel with his first Grammy for Album of the Year. In 1978, he released 52nd Street, which scored him a second Album of the Year Grammy and seemingly solidified his place at the top of his game.

This success did not leave him immune to criticism. Music critics and his peers began to comment that Joel was a master of melody, but that he would become obsolete with the rise of rock and punk. Joel saw this as an enticing challenge and his response was 1980’s Glass Houses. The title of the album is itself quite a statement: those who thought it was fit to criticize him in their “glass houses” should be careful, because he can throw his stones. The reception to the album was overwhelmingly positive. The tracks acted as a bit of an exploration of the different themes present in the history of rock n’ roll, and listeners took notice. He scored his first number one single and walked away with a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance, proving once and for all that he could rock if he wanted to.

Now, in celebrating its 25th anniversary, I will take a look at an album of remarkable work from the one and only Piano Man.

The album opens with the sound of shattering glass to introduce “You May Be Right,” a none-too-subtle stab at those who would doubt him. Joel sings “You may be right/I may be crazy/But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for,” and one can’t help but understand that he knows he is going out on a limb but that he has a feeling that is exactly what people want. The track is quite a starting punch to the album, amplified by a steady guitar and a Joel staple in Richie Cannata’s roaring saxophone. Following it up is “Sometimes a Fantasy,” which stays directly with the drive and cheekiness of the opener: it is a song about that 1980’s wonder: phone sex. Guitars and drums dominate the track, making two in a row which are a far cry from Joel’s normally-piano-driven fare, but they both give the man a chance to let loose and have quite a bit of fun for us at the microphone.

Much of the album also plays as an exercise in tribute to the many facets of rock music that came before him, and this is most explicitly laid out on the song that would become Joel’s first-ever number one hit, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” He sings “Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk/It’s still rock and roll to me,” which was undoubtedly aimed at those who were discounting his ability to rock along. He continues this rock and roll fantasy throughout the album with tracks such as the punk-tinged “All For Leyna,” “Close to the Borderline” – which is an Eagles-style reflection on the anxiety and insanity of the Vietnam years Joel grew up in – and the standard drive of “Sleeping with the Television On,” where he gives more time to the sexual frustration he started in “Sometimes a Fantasy.” While each of these tracks takes the rock and roll he sang about in a different direction, they all have the common thread of showcasing his musical abilities in different ways. He allows himself to use the piano as more of a support for his voice than as a showcase on its own, which gives us a different flavor of Joel.

Nonetheless, a Billy Joel album wouldn’t be a true Billy Joel album without its fair share of the melodic piano he became famous for. He takes the time to croon and deliver a set of more laidback tracks that stay true to his roots while incorporating the themes of the album. On “Don’t Ask Me Why,” Joel channels Paul McCartney and shows off his piano virtuosity by incorporating a solo closer to salsa than pop. A few tracks later, Joel revisits this groove on “I Don’t Want to Be Alone,” but he slows it down more to express the sexual frustration that is present on multiple tracks. It is an upbeat song, but much of this theme can be attributed to Joel’s deteriorating marriage at the time to Elizabeth Weber Small. In contrast, “Through the Long Night” is a touching song about staying around even when the dark moments outpace all others. He sings “No, I didn’t start it/You’re broken hearted/From a long, long time ago/Oh, the way you hold me/Is all that I need to know/And it’s so late/But I’ll wait/Through the long night with you with you,” and on that line, Joel seems to put all the unrest of the album to sleep with its final chords.

After almost a decade of widespread appeal, Glass Houses marks the end of Joel’s greatest stretch of albums. He would score a resounding success with An Innocent Man in 1983, but that album was made up of songs written to mimic the pop and soul he grew up on. For avid Joel fans, there was still much great music to be heard and discovered but the average listener who judged him only on his hits may have written him off as a has-been. 25 years after this album, and 34 years after the release of his first album, the continued success of his concerts and songs sings a very different tune, proving that Joel is very much still rock and roll to an ever-growing number of fans.