THERE ARE three distinct levels from which to approach "The Nylon T Curtain," Billy Joel's new album. The first is pop craftsmanship, the structures and themes of the nine songs that make up the most ambitious work of his career. The second is performance, the realization of that material. And finally, there is production, the kinetic frame that encompasses the first two levels. On "The Nylon Curtain" (Columbia TC38200) those three levels interact like an Escher sketch; one can discover new relationships with each careful appreciation.

Appearances and relationships lie at the heart of many of Joel's new songs, but for now, the songs that will attract the most attention are "Allentown" and "Goodbye Saigon," because they deal with issues that are very public. Contradicting its infectious beat and a breezy delivery that sounds like a cross between Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder, "Allentown" addresses the decaying dreams rampant in that impoverished Pennsylvania town (one of the first to respond to Joel's music many years ago) where "they're closing all the factories down."

Being immortalized in a eulogic rocker is an ironic payback for those members of Joel's generation who have nothing left to bargain with after the coal's been ripped out of the earth, after the plants have reaped their profits and the unions their rewards. "Every child had a pretty good shot/to get at least as far as their old man got," Joel points out bitterly, coldly assessing the limitations for both generations. And he presages new labor migrations in direct lines that capture a mood already evident in much of the country today: "It's hard to keep a good man down/But I won't be getting up today/and it's getting very hard to stay." The song begins and ends with harsh industrial sounds, as if Joel is conceding the inevitability of the situation, the reality encompassing his four-minute escape.

"Goodbye Saigon," a very different song, also begins with found sounds, this time the slow, whirling doom of an incoming chopper. What follows may well be Joel's most lucid, razor-sharp lyrics to date. It's irrelevant that Joel is not a vet: He's done a remarkable job of capturing the emotional flashes of that long war, or at least those likely to have been felt by the grunts who fought it. Vicious little couplets march along grimly to a beautifully elegiac melody a la Don McLean: "We met as soul mates on Parris Island/We left as inmates from an asylum . . . or We came in spastic like tameless horses/We left in plastic as numbered corpses . . . or Remember Charlie, remember Baker/They left their childhood on every acre."

These are not new images, of course, but they smack of recognition and empathy, rather than invention. There is one bothersome device, a sharp echo effect that pops up three times, but it's excused by the haunting bluster and fragile fraternity of the chorus, "and we would all go down together, we said we'd all go down together." Sounding old and British, something Fairport Convention might have come up with in its heyday, that chorus could be a drinking song, but it's really a dying song. At the end, the disheartening hum of the motors reappears, like the unresolved anguish of the war itself.

There are other battles joined on "Nylon Curtain," ones that Joel is an eyewitness to. Three songs deal, each very differently, with personal relationships. "A Room of Our Own" sets up a separation in almost comical terms ("You've got love, darlin', I've got sex/You've got cash, mama, and I've got checks") but concedes in pained terms that situations sometimes do get emotionally crowded, that "sometimes you've got to get away."

"Laura" and "She's Right on Time" show the flip-side: the aftereffects of getting away. Laura calls up in the middle of the night because she knows the man who answers still loves her enough to talk softly and listen hard. "She's surviving on her second chances," Joel complains. "How can she hold an umbilical cord for so long?" But the undiminished love slips through in his closing lines: "How do you hang up on someone/who needs you that bad?" "She's Right on Time" is a pure celebration of renewal, of rejoining, of second chances, of melancholy rewarded by reunion.

There are other moods and moments on the album: the taut, skittish energy of "Pressure" (weakly handled in verse) and the so-whatness of "Surprises"; the mystical quietude of "Scandinavian Skies" and the absolute grace of "Where's the Orchestra." It's in these later songs that the performance factor comes in. Joel has always worn his Beatles influence proudly. The Lennon-McCartney split is as distinct on "Nylon Curtain" as it was in the Beatles final days. On the depressing "Laura," the acute "Room of Our Own" and the obtuse "Scandinavian Skies," Joel recalls John Lennon, while "She's Right on Time" and "Where's the Orchestra" summon up the unabashed sentimentality and melodic whimsy of Paul McCartney. And "Pressure" sounds like smoothed Stones, a polite "Shattered" that works better as the frequently screened video than as pure audio.

Which is where Phil Ramone's sterling production comes in for credit. Ramone is one of the most empathetic and intelligent producers in rock, with a special ability to surround lyrics texturally rather than overwhelm them. On the Beatle-esque tunes, he conjures a host of "White Album" and "Sgt. Pepper" tricks, from waffling guitars and cascading harmonies to filtered vocals and clever mini-orchestrations (listen in particular to "Scandinavian Skies"). Ramone's most subtle work is on the closing "Orchestra," where Joel gently sings against the quietude of a cello-accordion-sax-clarinet combination, trying to make some final sense of a show he's watching and starring in and criticising, all at the same time.

"The Nylon Curtain" is a challenging, often angry work from a songwriter whose social observations have often been obscured by his commercial instincts. It's a step away from the familiar (and certainly far away from the hostility of "Glass Houses"), the sign of an artist taking chances while remaining accesible to his public.