In 2018, Billy Joel revealed The Nylon Curtain had been one of the most challenging albums for him to make. “I almost died making that album,” he told The New York Times. But the follow-up, the breezy An Innocent Man, came quite naturally. It contrasted its predecessor sonically and in the circumstances in which it was created. The Nylon Curtain, a survey of disillusionment with the American dream, came in the wake of Joel’s divorce from Elizabeth Weiber, his first wife and business manager. (She was also the muse for songs like “She’s Always a Woman” and “Vienna”.) Conversely, An Innocent Man was born from a new romance. “I wrote and recorded the whole thing in about six weeks,” he said. “It became the valentine [to Christy].”
Joel’s second wife, supermodel Christy Brinkley, replenished his personal and creative reserves, reflected in the album’s upbeat 1950s throwback sound. Although The Nylon Curtain was a testament to Joel’s reputation as a balladeer, and therefore certainly not lacking creatively, An Innocent Man is an about-face that mirror’s Joel’s new life, as it veers from the contemporary synths he had begun to experiment with on Glass Houses and The Nylon Curtain.
While a record that celebrates the music of Joel’s youth, appearing to ignore modern trends, may have seemed like a victory lap for the Grammy-winning singer, who was also now a fixture of the tabloids, Joel still had something to prove on An Innocent Man. On the title track, he bemoans, “Although this is a fight I could lose, the accused is an innocent man.” Joel’s justification of choice to give love a second chance shortly after divorce bolsters the public-relations damage control required of him during this time.
The public had latched onto a narrative of a rockstar-meets-supermodel whirlwind romance. While this may have reflected the truth, as an astute chronicler of romance, Joel had to prove he was still a regular guy: an essential part of his image. He said to Rolling Stone in 1990, “Don’t people realize that the minute the door closes… it’s just me and her and real man-and-wife time?”
Throughout the album, Joel gives advice while churning out pop tunes that showcase his melodic mastery and personal growth. The closing track, “Keeping the Faith”, is a catchy homage to the culture of Joel’s youth, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in Levittown, Long Island, America’s first planned suburb. Joel reminisces, “Had my hair in a pompadour like the rest Romeos wore / In a permanent wave.” A standout in terms of the structure of its writing, “Keepin’ the Faith” mirrors folk-rock with two bridge sections and ample verses, as opposed to pop, which formulaically demands two short verses and a short, if existent, bridge. Joel’s prolific lyrics on this song allow him to play the role of a piano man without a piano in sight.
Throughout his commercial peak, Joel attempted to dispel his reputation as a piano lounge singer and become a rocker. In a 2014 New Yorker profile, Nick Paumgarten wrote, “Joel wasn’t what the critics were looking for… their notions of authenticity, however flimsy, didn’t allow for his kind of poppy piano tristesse.” However, after flexing his pop muscles for the entirety of An Innocent Man, especially on the hit “Uptown Girl”, Joel allows himself to luxuriate in storytelling with the insights of “Keepin’ the Faith”, saying that he “learned that a man ain’t just being macho”. While managing to prevent himself from becoming pigeonholed into the image of his breakout hit, Joel maintains his innocence.
Elsewhere on An Innocent Man, Joel revels in newfound love, which creates the best material for chart-topping hits. “Tell Her About It”, the album’s number one hit, allows Joel to continue reprising his role as a romantic wise man, dispensing the advice, “When you love someone, you’re always insecure / And there’s only one good way to reassure.” Like songs in his back catalog that appear addressed to someone else but are written as letters to himself (such as “Big Shot”), “Tell Her About It” functions as a romantic playbook for the listener while narrating lessons learned from Joel’s romantic trials. By making light of a traditionally taboo subject for men and opening up about their feelings, Joel ascends to complete the true purpose of An Innocent Man: to become a vessel for nostalgia itself, beyond romanticizing a particular decade.
Many critics found Joel to be derivative of his rock ‘n’ roll inspirations, but he knew he was also a pop star. “An artist is someone who… paints pictures and starves in a garret somewhere,” he told Rolling Stone in 1980. An Innocent Man, through its steadfast devotion to honoring the music of the 1950s, makes the best case possible for a man with ulterior motives to conquer the pop scene. Dressing up the record as a throwback disguised just how innovative it really was.
Joel was not afraid to embrace the current moment, as he displayed by experimenting with synthesizers on Glass Houses. Additionally, he discussed economic hardship on “Allentown” and reckoned with war on “Goodnight Saigon”, both from The Nylon Curtain. However, there are many reasons that Joel might have changed his tune on An Innocent Man. Although Glass Houses was similarly hit-packed, it garnered criticism as a commercial sellout.
Additionally, while The Nylon Curtain may have strengthened Joel’s reputation as a serious songwriter and social critic, it didn’t have the commercial potential of the albums it is sandwiched between and, through its grievances, may have shattered the fourth wall of Joel’s all-American image. Instead of updating his persona for a time of reflection, The Nylon Curtain may have breached the contract that all celebrities must sign with the public, as summarized by Taylor Swift in the 2020 documentary Miss Americana: “Reinvent yourself in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you.”
An Innocent Man rehabilitated Joel’s public presence by creating fun pop while using the past to create an everlasting fantasy that still conjures itself up in a listen 40 years later. An Innocent Man was a record made about the 1950s in the 1980s: the self-awareness that the task required provides an infrastructure to carry the album’s relevance into the 21st century when consuming the album itself becomes an act of nostalgia, underwritten by its backward-looking content. This posturing allowed Joel to continue building his career-capping association with 20th-century nostalgia on Storm Front through the epic summary of major historical events of the Cold War era, the number one hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. (This writer first heard that song in his tenth-grade history class.)
Serving a practical purpose is one way for an artist to remain relevant. However, as a singer-songwriter who struggled against the machinery of even his enterprise, Joel knew he had to make a plan at the onset of the 1980s when electronic music made acts that could independently write, sing, and play an instrument less necessary. Additionally, bands were coming back in style, and solo acts were no longer storytelling troubadours, even if they had a pop edge. The biggest solo acts of the coming decade leveraged their independence to become symbols of cultural shifts that relied on pop spectacle, whereas Joel remained a vestige from a time when pop singularity relied on grounded personas based on individual expression. “It was 1971, and the singer/songwriter was in vogue,” wrote Rolling Stone of Joel’s path to his first record deal.
Throughout his career, Joel had existed adjacent to the singer-songwriters of the Laurel Canyon era, such as James Taylor and Jackson Browne. However, Joel was less a harbinger of that era than a reaction to it. Even as a solo act, his presence reflected the big rock bands of the 1960s. He said, “…the era of Sgt. Pepper through Abbey Road… I always felt cheated that era got cut short.” Joel prolonged a bygone musical epoch by peddling its sound in a template indicative of the 1970s. While critics dismissed him as derivative, a singer-songwriter foundation and popular sound were the methods of survival for his raison d’etre as a pop star.
As much as the 1970s were the antithesis of the music that inspired Joel, the 1980s were the antithesis of everything he had become. As a reaction to the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s, despite its technological advancements, produced conservatism politically and socially. Some of the most successful movies of that decade, directed by John Hughes, repackaged the pristine suburban fairytale of the 1950s in a modern format (such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). This was a market gap that Billy Joel was destined to help fill.
However, in keeping with his singer-songwriter sensibilities, Joel approached the task of immortalizing a bygone era with an important signifier. Subverting the premise of An Innocent Man on “Keeping the Faith”, he said, “You can get just so much of a good thing / You can linger too long in your dreams.” Serving as the thesis statement for the record, this line becomes a cautionary tale about getting lost in the past on an album that preserves it. This irony underscores the futility of any retrospective project: ultimately, it really has to be about how listeners feel in the present. “I intend to hold you for the longest time,” Joel confesses on the acapella hit, “The Longest Time”, looking to the future, presumably addressing Brinkley.
The duality of An Innocent Man allowed the album to serve its true purpose. It would have fallen flat if its backward-looking nature had been obtuse or one-dimensional. The 1980s, a decade of maximalism, may seem celebratory, but in reality, reflect the rapid pace at which capitalism commercializes anything from therapy to art, things that, through their nature, must exist outside an economic sphere to thrive.
Joel’s homage to his youth wasn’t just a plea for his innocence or a testament to the validity of a particular genre. It was a warning to America that its culture would quickly devour itself and that Joel himself, a pop star adept at changing his sound to maintain a vast listenership (“You have to discard one audience to pick up another one,” he told In the Studio), would be complicit in the process, despite his creative inclinations. An Innocent Man was a deceptive title: it framed New Wave pop stars as the true engine of the capitalist machine. Billy Joel is just a guy from Long Island.