How does one adequately define another as a legend? I’ve often asked myself this question as I was writing this. There are, of course, myriad answers to that question, but I like to personally think that a legend is one who, through scrutiny and rough times, through lows and personal demons that threaten to overwhelm one’s very core, manages to gain a status of such high regard that they have permanently entered and altered the zeitgeist of their time.
In my opinion, Billy Joel aptly fits that definition. People the world over know his name and his music, regardless of their feelings towards the former or the latter. His music, from “Uptown Girl” to “Big Shot” to the ever-famous, ever-ubiquitous “Piano Man” have permeated American popular culture to a degree that has only previously been captured by the like of Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, and the British Invasion bands of the 1960s.
Joel has been a part of my life since I was born. My parents constantly listen to him, and saw him live before I was even conceived. “Just The Way You Are” was their wedding song and their wedding gown For me and my family, Billy Joel wasn’t just something that we listened to after flipping through radio stations: it was—and is—a part of the fabric of our lives. After living in Manhattan for a brief period of time, the music seemed to have new depth for me. Joel became many things for me: a reminder of the home I deeply missed; a familiar voice when I walked through a city of eight-and-a-half million and felt more alone and isolated than ever; and, in a way, he became the idealized version of New York City to me, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” were for so many others.
Half-Life has always been a favorite feature of mine, documenting how an artist changes over time by diving headfirst through their discography and deciphering every little bit one possibly could, to get to the heart of an artist’s catalog. So, when Heavy Blog decided to finally initiate the Brooklyn Plan, I knew what I needed to write.
Admittedly, I’m biased. This is a musician who’s gotten closer to me than almost any other artist ever. Aware of that, I’ve decided to tool around with the Half-Life formula; instead of simply describing Billy Joel’s album, I’ve split each album up into two sections, the former being a more objective look at the release, and the latter my own thoughts on it.
Now, without any further adieu, this is the career of one William Martin Joel:
Cold Spring Harbor (1971, Family Productions/Columbia)
Billy Joel’s solo debut (after some time with The Hassles and a short-lived psychedelic/heavy metal band known as Atilla) remains perhaps his most forgotten and disliked release in his entire catalog. Despite the poor reception the album received upon its release, though, Cold Spring Harbor exemplifies the roots of Joel’s music, and stands as a foreshadowing of sorts of things to come, mostly through the general sound of the record.
Indeed, Joel seems to cement his style early on with this release; the tracks contain smidgens of country, folk, and even a bit of classical influence, all set to a mild soft rock, with some additions by pedal steel and harpsichord parts. His vocals and piano work command attention, though; even in tracks that don’t necessarily use the aplomb and passion he’s now famous for (e.g. “She’s Got A Way” and “Why Judy Why”) one can hear his heart being worn on his sleeve.
The playfully romantic and often melancholic nature of his lyricism take a front seat in Cold Spring Harbor as well. The lyrics of “Tomorrow Is Today”, for example, are taken from a note Joel left for his loved ones after an early suicide attempt, in which his ennui and disappointment with his career become apparent: “People tell me life is sweeter/ But I don’t hear what they say / Nothing comes to change my life / So tomorrow is today”
However, while these sounds and themes are a part of Cold Spring Harbor, they aren’t as fully fleshed out as they would be in future releases. The album comes off as a bit undercooked when compared to Joel’s later discography, the songs only seeds at best. He does bare his heart for the record, but not without some apprehension and lack of confidence in his own musical abilities. Sometimes his piano playing feels tentative and hesitant. On top of the songwriting issues, a production snafu caused Joel’s voice to sound higher than it actually was. This was fixed in the Cold Spring Harbor reissue in 1983, but Joel still remains wary of the album.
The lackluster commercial and critical reception, combined with Joel’s own distaste for the album, set back his career some. He was reportedly so devastated that he ran away to Los Angeles to, among other things, shake off his recording contract.
My Take: This is one of those albums in Joel’s discography that, while definitely not to the bar that he sets later on, is still a little overlooked. “She’s Got A Way” is a beautiful little tune (made even better his reworking of it in the live album Songs In The Attic), and “You Can Make Me Free” is a great example of Billy making the most out of his voice at an early point in his career. There’s a lot of emotion and feeling in this album that’s worth listening to. However, if you’re someone whose only experience with Joel has been via the radio, I would skip it, as it has nothing songwriting-wise that puts butts in chairs, so to speak. I would recommend this to people who are fans of folk and soft-rock artists like Bob Dylan, as while Cold Spring Harbor doesn’t necessarily bow to the folk sensibilities Joel has, there is an aloofness about the music that could dovetail well with folk fans.
Piano Man (1973, Family Productions/Colombia)
Joel’s time in Los Angeles proved to be a renewal for his career—with this album as proof of that—but it wasn’t quite enough of a restart to launch him into the stardom that he’s known for today. However, Piano Man gave Joel a brief taste of the superstar limelight he’d soon have, with the title track (arguably his signature song still to this day) and “Captain Jack” receiving massive airplay on the radio, to the point that Joel actually did a broadcast with songs from this album and Cold Spring Harbor in Philadelphia’s WMMR in 1972.
His song writing in Piano Man is noticeably stronger, possibly from his time working a bar under the name Bill Martin (the setting of which was the inspiration for the lyrics of “Piano Man”); Joel seems much more confident in his piano playing and his own singing abilities as he delivers a passionate performance in every single track of this album.
There is more to Piano Man than just the title track and “Captain Jack,” though; if one was to describe this album as a whole, it would, essentially, be considered his “country” record. This isn’t to say that Joel had shrugged off the rock and jazz influences that have become his sound in favor of a completely country album. (In fact, he never quite adheres to any single genre in his entire discography.) Rather, the instrumentation, themes, and songwriting that are iconic to country music—pedal steel, banjo, the American West, cowboys—is somewhat more prevalent in the mix of Joel’s influences. The album’s opener, “Travelin’ Prayer,” makes heavy use of a banjo, and “You’re My Home”, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”, and “Stop in Nevada” contain some lush pedal steel parts and a general country-western flair.
Yet, while this is an improvement songwriting-wise when compared to Cold Spring Harbor, Piano Man has few tracks that were as popular as “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack”, which could be result of lackluster writing; as a result, the album was moderately reviewed. The structure of some tracks can be a bit uninspired sometimes. Consider the track “If I Only Had The Words” as a prime example of this, as it really only has two sections—a verse and a chorus—that, while performed impeccably, are repeated ad nauseam, and by the end seems to resolve nothing in its writing.
Nonetheless, Piano Man is still remembered for its title track and “Captain Jack”, which are still to this day considered some of his best and most legendary work ever.
My Take: I enjoy Billy’s stronger songwriting in Piano Man, and “Captain Jack” is a track whose lyrics I constantly think about and relate to the listlessness and ennui of the millennial generation. (To be fair, “Captain Jack” is about heroin, but a good amount of the lyrics in the verses have striking parallels to this generation’s problems at large.) And while I don’t consider myself a fan of country, I like seeing Billy come through with a stronger vibe in that direction; he’s able to add enough of himself in his songwriting that can practically overcome any genre barrier. I don’t nearly listen to Piano Man as much as his later material, but it still has a place in my heart.
Streetlife Serenade (1974, Columbia/Family Productions)
Billy Joel isn’t a name that one would normally associate with musical experimentation. And, yes, he has never in his career created music that could even come close to being labeled as “avant-garde”, but Streetlife marks a minor change and showcases a minor experimentation for our artist as he fleshes out his sound a bit more with the addition of electric piano and synthesizers, most prominently heard in “Great Suburban Showdown”, “Los Angelenos” and “The Entertainer”.
Aside from the new sonic territory being explored via the aforementioned instruments, Billy also adds a wider gamut of styles in the track listing, though the quality of songwriting hasn’t improved much (more on that later). The instrumental “Root Beer Rag”, like its title suggests, lends a majority of influence to ragtime music in general. The general spirit of “Los Angelenos” is large, swaggering, gown exponentially by the use of electric piano. And, again, Billy revisits some country twang in “The Great Suburban Showdown.”
Streetlife, despite all these odds, failed to garner any major staying power, much like its predecessor. Arguably the only hit to come from this album was “The Entertainer”, which, ironically, served as a platform for Joel to vent his spleen towards critics and showbiz at large. Most of the other tracks are forgettable, lacking anything particularly catchy or worthy of mention. Aside from “The Great Suburban Showdown” and “Weekend Song”—the latter of which features some of Billy’s most soulful vocal performances of this era in his career—there was mostly poor, lackluster songwriting. “Streetlife Serenader” opens the album off on uneven footing, with Joel bringing in a few interesting hooks here and there, but the track generally feels bloated and meandering, as if a few minutes of musical fat could’ve been sliced off. (As we’ll soon see, this is a common problem for Billy Joel throughout his career) “Roberta,” while not horrible by any means, similarly fails in songwriting, this time in matching its mediocre music with its interesting lyrics (concerning, it seems, a prostitute and her ever-strapped-for-cash john).
My Take: In my opinion, Billy Joel has never made an album that screams “bad”, and Streetlife Serenade is no exception. The songwriting usually isn’t up to the bar that he’s set on some of the tracks off of Piano Man, but it nonetheless has its hidden gems. “Los Angelenos” is my absolute favorite song by Joel bar none. Overall, I can’t say that it’s an album for anyone teetering between the fence of “vaguely interested” and “die-hard fan”, but if you’ve heard a lot of Joel’s catalog and want to dive deeper, this is a good place to go.
Turnstiles (1976, Columbia/Family Productions)
Billy Joel’s first album after moving back to New York (a mere technicality, as the first recording of this album was in LA and was promptly scrapped and rerecorded in the Empire State) is perhaps best thought of as, like Cold Spring Harbor, a foreshadowing of great things to come. In the case of Turnstiles, however, the pieces of musical greatness are present but not entirely attached together yet. Nearly every single track—”All You Want To Do Is Dance” and “James” being the outliers in question—is considered, in their own respective ways, a bonafide Joel classic, whether it’s the timeless, melancholic legend of “New York State Of Mind” or the incredibly well-performed “Prelude/Angry Young Man”—a track that pushed the limits of what Billy was capable of playing on a piano, and actually tires him out while performing its introduction live. Joel’s songwriting reached a major milestone with Turnstiles; each track is tight and solid, with no song outstaying its welcome. Most of all, though, it all has a certain catchiness to it, inviting repeat listens.
But while this album is a commendable step forward for our artist, there are issues, that, while minuscule in comparison to the glaring problems on Cold Spring Harbor, still keep Turnstiles from being all it could’ve been. The album marked Joel’s first time producing his own music, which was both a blessing and a curse. The tracks obviously have the polish matching Billy’s vision of the album, but Joel also manages to make some foolish production decisions at the same time, such as the heavy reverb on his vocals on “Miami 2017” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” which does more to damage the beauty of his voice than to create any sense of drama and/or atmosphere.
Nonetheless, Turnstiles represents a significant increase in maturity, whether it’s in the tight songwriting, complex lyricism, or even his own personality. (“Angry Young Man” perhaps best exemplifies this with its virtuosic piano playing and bitingly satirical lyrics.) And while he doesn’t receive due credit commercially (or critically) for this work, it’s nonetheless something to behold.
My Take: I find Turnstiles to be the most underrated Billy Joel album. He pulls relentlessly from this album for his live shows, but when it comes to the Internet’s ranking of Joel’s albums, Turnstiles doesn’t usually fare too well. While I’m not a fan of the reverb he adds to those aforementioned songs, he still performs each track impeccably, with passionate aplomb.
The Stranger (1977, Columbia/Family Productions)
After so many years of so-so critical and commercial reception, this is the album that changed everything, and is still regarded by many today as Joel’s magnum opus. Everything that he had been working on—his jazz influences, precise songwriting, witty lyricism, passionate performance—fully blooms in The Stranger.
Also of note is the solidification of Joel’s sound. Previous releases of his harbor numerous strains of influences, from rock to jazz to country and even some classical (such as “Nocturne” from Cold Spring Harbor), but the amount of influence generally varied; Piano Man was more broadly country, for example, or “All You Want To Do Is Dance” (off of Turnstiles) showcased what could only be described as a pseudo-calypso sound. The Stranger, through stronger songwriting, combines these influences more, and causes them to mesh and meld into something more cohesive and startlingly individual. Listening to a track like “Movin’ Out” clearly feels like rock, what with its guitar leads and verse-chorus-verse structure, but it’s really unlike any other rock song. It’s something distinctly so Billy Joel about it that nobody else could do it the same way.
The reception for The Stranger was unprecedented; even today it’s still his best-selling studio album, with upwards of ten million units sold in America alone. On the critical side of things, “Just The Way You Are” won Record of the Year and Single of the Year in the 1978 Grammy Awards.
In summation, Billy Joel had, after years of disappointment from critics and a move to and from the other side of the country, gained a significant foothold in the ladder of superstardom—a postition that, despite ups and downs (as we’ll see) has been kept for nearly forty years.
My Take: I fucking adore The Stranger. If I had to pick a favorite album by Billy Joel, it would almost definitely be this one. This is the essential Joel experience, and the first place I’d send anyone who was even remotely interested in exploring his music in more depth. In the last ten months, I’ve probably listened to this album almost every week. This is an album that’s in my top ten albums of all time (along with John Zorn‘s Hemophiliac albums, Florence and the Machine‘s Lungs, and the debut Bad Brains album, among others)—not just for its musical beauty, but its lyrical sentiments as well. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his seminal novel Slaughterhouse-Five that ”There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life…The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” I feel that, accordingly, The Stranger can teach you anything about youth and about growing up, from the perils of love (“The Stranger”, “Just the Way You Are”) to the trials of adulthood (“Movin’ Out”, “Vienna”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”) to just enjoying life for what it is “Only the Good Die Young”, “Vienna”).
52nd Street (1978, Columbia/Family Productions)
It’s been obvious since day one that Joel regards jazz as a huge influence— he’s professed to have been a fan of Gershwin and Brubeck, among others—but that has never been a dominant theme in his music until 52nd Street. The followup to The Stranger takes that album’s strong songwriting and Joel’s ever-present blend of influences and simply extends the influence of jazz just a hair more (even going so far as being named after the what used to be the famed jazz section of Manhattan and the place of the album’s recording). Famed trumpeter (and jazz pioneer) Freddie Hubbard guests on “Zanzibar” with marimba/vibraphonist Mike Mainieri (who also appears on “Rosalinda’s Eyes.”).
But it’s not just featured musicians that make 52nd Street what it is. Joel’s piano playing is effervescent, yet confident; his voice tackles the blues with a worn knowledge and a sentimentality that makes it obvious his heart is firmly stitched to his sleeve. His phrasings (both vocal and piano) on the verses in songs like “Zanzibar”, “52nd Street” and “Big Shot” stay completely within previously-established musical territory, but have a fresh feel to it, as if it had been workshopped by the likes of Duke Ellington or Bill Evans.
This isn’t to say that Joel doesn’t veer outside of that jazz influence, though; his music seems to suggest genres have no definitive borders; he peruses through styles of music like one takes a walk through the city. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is a great example, as it burns with Cuban flair due to its flamenco guitar additions and Latin American-influenced lyrics.
Lyrically, we see a bit more maturity as well. Joel tackles the egoism of the big city with “Big Shot”, while contemplating the aspect of truth in relationships (“Honesty”), and even putting forth a number in honor of his mother (“Rosalinda’s Eyes”)
And the critics and fans agreed with the quality of 52nd Street; it became the first album of Joel’s to top the Billboard Charts, and won 1979’s Grammy for Album of the Year, along with Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
My Take: Again, this is a great album. I particularly like the influence of jazz on 52nd Street, and how well it interplays with other styles of music that Joel explores on it. However, I’ve always found the back end of the album to be a bit disappointing. Not in terms of quality (like The Stranger, there really isn’t a bad track here), but in the order of the tracks. “Until the Night” has such a finale sort of sound to it that it screws me up every time to hear “52nd Street” come right after it to finish up the album. Again, neither of these songs are bad, but the placement of them is a little jarring.
Glass Houses (1980, Columbia/Family Productions)
Perhaps it’s best to start off a summation of Glass Houses with a lyrics from its most famous track:
“It’s the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It’s still rock and roll to me”. With this little fragment, Joel himself explains this album. In as much as 52nd Street was jazz, Glass Houses is rock—hard, unforgiving, maybe even trendy at times—but at the end of the day a genre built on a groove and meant to energize and be enjoyed. Joel still plays his piano, sure, but that takes a back seat to some sharp guitar work that is still today considered among heaviest in his catalog.
Included in this exploration into more broadly rock territory are slight tendencies towards new wave music. The intro for “All for Leyna” uses a somewhat frosty-sounding piano/synth lead that, while very new wave-inspired, is completely Billy—melancholic, but nonetheless powerful in execution.
But compared to the relative seriousness that was a part of The Stranger and 52nd Street, there’s a more lighthearted approach, possibly caused by the influence of new wave on the album. The drums for“Sometimes a Fantasy” stay so simple in composition that it’s almost impossible not to dance to, “Don’t Ask Me Why” breaks into something resembling an island sound a la “All You Want To Do Is Dance” from Turnstiles, and Joel briefly sings in French in “C’état Toi (You Were the One)”.
And, of course, there’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” You can hear the fun Billy Joel has on this track, what with its West Side Story-esque Sharks vs. Jets rough-and-tumble groove, incredibly-catchy verses, and a sax solo from Joel band saxophonist Richie Cannata that hearkens back to his virtuosic performance on “New York State of Mind” while also retaining the passion that Glass Houses poses as. Lyrically, the song is a reaction to the new wave sound that was incredibly nascent at the time, and is Joel’s shrug towards it—after all, it’s just music. Fads are fads, and things change with a heartbeat—new wave being, in a sense, nothing “new”. This doesn’t stop him from lightheartedly criticizing the fashion trends surrounding the movement, however, with his usual bitingly satirical style.
Like 52nd Street, Glass Houses was incredibly successful, with “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” becoming Joel’s first single to top the Billboard Singles Charts, and the album itself topping the Pop Charts. It was nominated for Album of the Year at the 1981 Grammys, but failed to win, with Joel instead bringing home Best Rock Vocal Performance and an American Music Award.
My Take: Glass Houses is, to me, one of those albums that, while not underrated, never quite got the attention it deserved. The later tracks—especially “All For Leyna”—are actually pretty solid, despite not being as popular as “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” or “You May Be Right”.
With that being said, I never really play this album as highly as The Stranger or Turnstiles. It isn’t that it’s bad—the songwriting is top-notch, and Joel brings his best to every performance—rather, the hard rock sound of Glass Houses can get to me. It’s like a fine tumbler of whiskey: it’s good—really good—but better when enjoyed sporadically, a treat for a special occasion.
The Nylon Curtain (1982, Columbia/Family Productions)
(Note: I’ll be upfront with this album: my relationship with it is, at best, difficult. I’ll expand upon that in My Take, but I say this now in case this description of the album is lacking. I’m attempting to be as objective as possible, but this isn’t an easy exercise with an album like this.)
The Nylon Curtain, in one word, is ambitious. Much of the same elements (read: passionate singing, heartfelt lyricism, and producer Phil Ramone, who had produced Joel’s last two albums) that had made Billy Joel famous were present, but instead of strengthening and refining these elements, he instead progresses beyond them, into musical territory strongly influenced by his predecessors.
Musically, he seems to be channeling The Beatles, with parts of “Laura” and “Pressure” in his songwriting; much of The Nylon Curtain feels as if its Joel’s take on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; Joel’s voice gains a shrill, Lennon-esque edge during this album, with a good number of songs showcasing the same surrealist and/or psychedelic pop sentiments that graced the Fab Four’s later albums. Much like The Beatles, Joel also took a massive amount of time to produce the album considering the various bells and whistles—orchestral elements, synthesizers, sound effects, etc.—that were put into the final master of the album, “playing the studio as an instrument,” as it were. It’s also worth noting that The Nylon Curtain was one of the first LPs to be digitally recorded, further emphasizing the progressive steps he wished to put into the work.
Joel’s lyrics in Nylon Curtain seem to revolve around the American Ideal, and are, for much of the album, a reaction against the nascent Reagan Administration and the death of small-town America following Reagan’s decisions regarding economic policy. “Allentown”, named after the Pennsylvania steel town, is now regarded as an anthem of America’s blue-collar working class, and “Goodnight Saigon” is a tribute to the Vietnam War, or, more importantly, the apathetic treatment of returning Vietnam soldiers.
Like Glass Houses, Nylon Curtain was well-received, though not as successfully, peaking at number 7 on the Billboard charts. Unfortunately, this was the confirmation—after Glass Houses faired poorer than 52nd Street—of Joel’s waning popularity, at least with audiences at the time. Joel himself, however, has come out in support of this album, considering it among his favorites out of his entire discography.
My Take: This is my least favorite Billy Joel album by far. Like I’ve said before, I don’t think he’s ever come out with a truly horrible album, but I do think there are some albums that are weaker than others, and The Nylon Curtain tops that list for me.
My frustration for this album mostly stems from the songwriting and the production. Billy Joel has shown himself more than able to absorb another artist’s style into his own without completely abandoning the particulars that have made him a legend in music. (A fantastic example is “Everyone Has A Dream”, wherein his beginning vocals give off a Ray Charles vibe.) However, Nylon Curtain is not one of those moments. It’s more as if Joel imitates The Beatles rather than reinterpreting their sound through his own musicianship. Some of the most serial offenders—“Scandinavian Skies”, in particular—sound like half-baked Beatles covers as opposed to one of the most popular singer-songwriters of the late twentieth century. Remember how I said earlier during my spiel on Streetlife Serenade that his songwriting issues mostly consist of a need to trim his songs down? This is exactly whats wrong with Nylon Curtain. It’s as if he runs out of ideas halfway through a song, but instead of simply shortening or reworking its elements he just drones on and on until the chorus. Take “Laura” for example; parts of it are actually decent, such as the main verses, but then it breaks into a pre-chorus (the section with the lyrics “I’m fighting her wars / while she’s slamming her doors”) that feels completely out of place for the track’s already-established spirit. It’s like Joel just shrugs and tries to add some unnecessary length to the track. The worst part of it all is that “Laura” isn’t the only culprit; even “Goodnight Saigon”, one of the biggest hits to come from The Nylon Curtain, feels bloated at times. The introduction lacks the heartfelt passion that I love Billy Joel for, and seems to go on forever, all to have him repeat that same intro melody for the verse.
And then there’re the production problems. For an album that reportedly spent a huge amount of time in the studio for production, there are some glaring mistakes. There are tracks (“Allentown” being the biggest offender) where, like “Miami 2017” off of Turnstiles, Joel thinks it’s a good idea to turn up the reverb effect for his voice and ends up taking out all the strength of his vocals with it. On top of that, his use of delay is nothing short of obnoxious, basically ruining what could’ve been a great pre-chorus in “Goodnight Saigon”.
But while this album as a whole frustrates me, there are some moments worth keeping. “She’s Right On Time” and “A Room Of Our Own” from the back end of the album are actually decent songs, though maybe just a bit less uninspired than other Joel material. The leading single “Pressure” makes for a nice listen as well, though it’s mostly for the super-catchy synthesizer melody in the chorus.
So, while I think this is Joel’s weakest effort, it’s still Joel, which still makes things halfway decent.
An Innocent Man (1983, Columbia/Family Productions)
If The Nylon Curtain is interpreted as an homage of sorts to The Beatles, An Innocent Man represents Joel’s influences in early rock and roll and R&B, stemming from a personal rejuvenation following his divorce to his first wife Elizabeth Weber, and his growing relationship (and eventual marriage) with model/actress Christie Brinkley. Every single track explores different aspects of what made rock what it is today, from doo-wop (“This Night”, “For The Longest Time”) to Little Richard-style rock and roll (“Christie Lee”) and everything in between. Every song, similar to The Stranger, has its own unique voice, whether its the James Brown big band sounds of “Easy Money”, the upbeat “Uptown Girl”, or the soulful “For the Longest Time”, yet no single track feels out of place among its siblings. The entire album has a cohesiveness that almost reminds one of a jukebox. This album is essentially proof of Joel’s dedication towards his music as well, as all the vocal takes for “For The Longest Time” were actually done by him and then put spliced together.
An Innocent Man was a little blip of positivity on the radar when it came to commercial reception. While it wasn’t harshly received (in fact, no Joel album since The Stranger was a major commercial or critical flop), it peaked at number four on the Billboard 200 (as opposed to number one with pre-Nylon Curtain releases). The album garnered its share of hits, though, with “Uptown Girl”, “Tell Her About It”, and “For the Longest Time” becoming some of Joel’s most iconic hits since “Piano Man”.
My Take: This album is proof that Billy Joel can imitate other styles impeccably, and all without changing the core elements of his sound (unlike The Nylon Curtain). I honestly have no complaints about this album; it’s just a fun listen when you want something different in the Joel catalog. There are parts of the album in which I know none of the lyrics, but I still sing along (badly, I might add) because An Innocent Man demands that sort of active, in-the-moment listening experience. I don’t think it stands up to The Stranger in terms of quality but, to be fair, that album in particular has a more personal meaning for me than this one.
The Bridge (1986, Columbia/Family Productions)
As his career has progressed, Joel has made a few niches for himself in terms of sound. While he always has the mainstay that made him famous—a relatively jazzy (and sometimes country-influenced), piano-driven rock—there have been stops along the way in different and distinct musical territories. Glass Houses was his first foray into new wave and harder, more rock-oriented material; 52nd Street was a love-letter of sorts to jazz music; and, of course, An Innocent Man served as an homage to the music of the early ‘60s. The Bridge, accordingly, takes two of those aforementioned niches—new wave and jazz—and ends up progressing the songwriting in each considerably, splitting the two genres in two across the album (albeit very roughly, as there is a lot of overlap).
The first half of The Bridge consists of new wave-influenced songs. Unlike what he had explored on Glass Houses, however, Joel dives deeper into the fundamental elements of the genre. “Running On Ice” leads with on a busy, and relatively frosty, synth riff; Minimal instrumentation—essentially just a bass riff and a simple drum beat—anchors “A Matter of Trust” into a deliciously addictive groove; and again we see synthesizers take the front seat in “This is the Time”. The second half, meanwhile, has Joel exploring some of his strongest jazz-influenced material since 52nd Street, with an incredible big band section performing in “Big Man On Mulberry Street” (featuring, in particular, jazz legend Ron Carter on bass), and the bluesy, piano-tinged duet “Baby Grand”.
The biggest attraction The Bridge had to offer, however, were the musicians prominently featured on the album. This actually marks the first—and only—time someone besides Joel was credited with writing one of his songs. (Technically there is one other exception—Beethoven, of all people, is credited with the chorus of “This Night” off of An Innocent Man, as it is essentially lifted from his Pathetique—but it is worth noting that its only the chorus, not the whole track.) He reportedly suffered from some writer’s block during the writing and recording of this album, and was subsequently helped by singer Cyndi Lauper on the track “Code of Silence”. Even more impressive, perhaps, was the feature on “Baby Grand”, where soul music pioneer Ray Charles plays with Joel, in a very fitting tribute to the sounds of the blues and the piano as not only an instrument but a part of the two musicians’ very essence.
Critical and commercial reception was a mixed bag at best. The Bridge is now certified double platinum in the US (selling about two-and-a-half million copies worldwide), but seemed to fall short critically for the most part. It was yet another shaky release for Billy Joel’s 80s career—while it technically sold admirably (especially in comparison with what music sales are like today), it nonetheless was a bit of a move downhill. As mixed as it was received, though, it was nominated for the 1986 Grammys, but lost to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
My Take: You know, listening to this album closely again made me realize how much I actually like it. Granted, it’s nothing compared to the albums that bookend it, but The Bridge has some shining moments nonetheless. “Baby Grand” is a hidden gem, and perfect for those who like Joel’s jazzier, instrumentally stripped-down side. “Big Man On Mulberry Street” remains a fun listen as well.
However, I do have some complaints with The Bridge. The opening track “Running On Ice” isn’t a horrible song, per se, but it’s a terrible way to open an album, what with its lead riff that even today doesn’t really mesh well with Joel’s overall sound. The chorus for “This Is The Time” can be a little cheesy, and it probably doesn’t help that I constantly get it stuck in my head. But all in all, this is worth listening to if you’ve exhausted all of Billy Joel’s more popular releases or are a big fan of Glass Houses.
Storm Front (1989, Columbia)
After the semi-flop that was The Bridge, Joel came back roaring with Storm Front, creating a new commercial hit and providing some of the strongest material from the later end of his catalog.
Storm Front pulls out all the stops in terms of songwriting; all tracks have that no-holds-barred passion that is quintessentially Billy Joel, but it’s portray in unique ways, combined with some fantastic lyricism. “Leningrad” tells the true tale of a Soviet soldier (turned circus clown) that Joel met while touring in Russia, over a relatively-stripped back, piano-centric song. (His Soviet tour, by the way, documented in the 1987 live album Kohuept—Russian for “Concert”—proved to be a huge event for not only Joel’s career, but for popular music in Russia after Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to open up the country.) “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’”, named after Joel’s daughter (who was about four years old at Storm Front’s release) acts as a de-facto sequel of sorts to “Allentown”, painting a romantic picture of the plight of Long Island fishermen and their attempt to keep their way of life alive amidst the intense gentrification of their hometowns. “Downeaster” also features some interesting musical highlights as well, with reverb-drenched guitars and pounding drums, creating a feeling of being at sea, being sprayed with salt water, and charting a course on a merciless ocean. “Shameless” and “I Go To Extremes” both (arguably) highlight Joel’s personal emotional issues at the time, and his attitude in a lot of his personal relationships.
The biggest hit of Storm Front, however, was “We Didn’t Start The Fire”: a track that remains even to this day one of Joel’s most iconic, what with its catchy melody and chorus, and the lyrical content, which details major historical events from around the time of Joel’s birth (post-WWII) to the present day (1989) in lieu of traditional lyrics (with the exception of the chorus). Joel was supposedly inspired to write the song after a conversation either with Sean Lennon (son of Beatles vocalist John Lennon) or someone close to Lennon, that went south about the current view of the world, what with the decade being dominated by the Reagan administration and possible threats to the world at large, such as the AIDS outbreak and the increasingly unstable Soviet Union.
While critical reception was, again, mixed (as it has been for the majority of Joel’s career), fans at large found the album to be great; it became Joel’s first number one on the Billboard 200 since 1980’s Glass Houses, and ended up selling quadruple platinum. While Joel had never technically had a major slump in his career, Storm Front marked a major return to form and popularity after nearly a decade of coasting.
My Take: I’m a little biased about Storm Front, perhaps more than any other Billy Joel album, because I grew up listening to it. I remember being about five years old and listening to “Downeaster ‘Alexa’” while my family drove to go get dinner. I’ve essentially loved this album for the last two decades of my life.
And while it doesn’t quite add up to Turnstiles or The Stranger for my ultimate affection, Storm Front is nonetheless a great piece of work. It’s proof that Billy Joel always has the ability to write a great piece of music under the right conditions, and the variety of sounds throughout its forty-four minutes keep me captivated.
River of Dreams (1993, Columbia)
Billy Joel is one of those artists that is, paradoxically, able to stick to a signature sound and further progress said sound. Throughout this retrospective, we’ve seen this be invariably true, but it’s perhaps most accurate when describing Joel’s most recent rock release, River of Dreams, which is, in a way, his venture into an aural uncanny valley.
Take the opener “No Man’s Land”, as an example of this progression in sound; its use of guitar rings vaguely of Storm Front or maybe even Glass Houses, and every verse remains catchy and melodic, despite being relatively sparse in its instrumentation. Yet, there’s something different flowing in the air. It’s as if Joel had been given a B12 shot; the song feels vaguely positive and vibrant. Even the lyrics, despite coming off as a sort of denouncement of American capitalism (“Give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise”), are sung in a positive, possibly satirical manner. (This isn’t to say that Joel has never been satirical before—“Los Angelenos” from Streelife Serenade and many others have already been that route—but never with this amount of dry wit.)
On the more musical side of things, River of Dreams is almost like Joel stretching his legs, and finally getting comfortable with his own musicianship. The chorus on “Blonde Over Blue”, perhaps fits this statement best, with its high-pitched vocals (high-pitched for Joel, that is, whose voice has deepened quite a bit with age) feels unlike anything that’s been done before, yet completely within Joel’s sound.
Like Storm Front, River of Dreams performed admirably when it came to commercial reception, topping the Billboard Top 200 and eventually being certified quintuple platinum in the United States. Like most of Joel’s releases, critical reception was mixed, some praising it highly, while others simply dismissing it.
But more than anything, River of Dreams was a farewell of sorts to fans. Since it was released in 1993, he has never followed up River of Dreams with another rock release. In Fred Schruers’s biography, Joel himself doesn’t attribute this to a burnout as much as deeming it unnecessary to follow up at the moment. His songs, according to him, tend to be written with the lyrics (which themselves often stem from personal matters) as the heart of the song and the music written around the lyrics, attempting to convey their meaning as much as possible; in this case, he simply didn’t think there was anything more to write about.
My Take: I was initially hesitant about buying River of Dreams, but it turned out to be a great purchase. Yes, it’s not going to be your standard Joel fare—it feels more rock and—dare I say?—adult contemporary, in its flavor. Don’t go into River of Dreams thinking that you’re getting the sequel to The Stranger, because you won’t find it here. Instead, though, Joel’s branching out in different ways, and I actually enjoy it a lot when I want to listen to something from his later career.
However, it’s a shame that this album isn’t more popular. I understand why fans tend to go for The Stranger and 52nd Street and the like—to repeat what I said before, those are some of my favorite albums ever—but they’re missing out on something that, while admittedly different, still has some great tracks on it. The title track in particular is one of my favorite Joel songs out of his entire catalog because of its catchy verses (essentially blending the classic Joel jazz sound with some upbeat guitars and minor gospel influences) and incredible lyrics (which deal primarily with Joel’s sense of spirituality).
Fantasies & Delusions (2001, Columbia/Sony Classical)
River of Dreams was Billy Joel’s last rock release, and Fantasies & Delusions marks both his first foray into classical music and his last studio album to date. Indeed, this album contains nothing but classical piano pieces written by Joel. Because of severe damage to his hands (mostly due to a devastating motorcycle accident in 1982), he didn’t feel capable of playing what he’d written, and instead hired friend and classical pianist Richard Joo to arrange and record the pieces.
The music in Fantasies & Delusions greatly hearkens back to the classical piano pieces of the Romantic era, with Joel citing influences from composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, among others. There are, in certain places, that signature Billy Joel piano—light hints of jazz and blues (like some of the more emotional parts of “Soliloquy (On a Separation)”) and a sort of big-city vibe—but it’s mostly dominated by traditional classical music. Each track feels like an adventure in its own right, with Joo’s phrasing and arrangements complimenting Billy’s melodies, creating soundscapes that in a sense merged the cool, laid back mentality of jazz with the tried-and-true passion of romantic classical music.
Classical music, on a whole, has an awkward place in American music; while it’s proven to be hugely influential to artists of all genres, it seems that only a very small amount of the American aural zeitgeist is dedicated to it. For a musician like Joel—who is actually a classically trained pianist, yet is more known as a rock musician—to make such an album, let alone have the desire, was incredibly strange. Yet, the album managed to briefly make it to the Billboard 200, peaking at 83.
Out of all of Billy Joel’s work, I’ve spent the least amount of time with Fantasies & Delusions. Classical music—especially classical piano—requires, for me at least, a certain mood, and even then it can be difficult to enjoy. Unlike most modern music, classical music can sometimes (but not always!) sound like it’s meandering and going nowhere, and this album is no exception. (To be completely fair, there is usually a great amount of musical theory at work in a classical piece, which, as I’ve previously said, is not my strong suit.)
This isn’t to say that this is a bad album by any means, but this isn’t a Billy Joel that most people know, and that can be a turnoff for some. I’ll put on Fantasies & Delusions sometimes, but I’ve never really sat down and studied it in the way that I have Joel’s other work. All in all, it’s worth the listen if you want some calming piano music, or are a big classical music fan, or happen to be somewhat competent in music theory.
Despite Joel’s lack of major studio output, he is far from the end of his career. (In actuality, Joel has actually visited the recording studio to release two singles: “All My Life” and “Christmas in Fallujah”.) Since River of Dreams and Fantasies & Delusions, he has toured relentlessly, with his sets pulling material from all over his catalog. As of 2014 he’s started an enormously successful once-a-month residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden—a residency that, according to Joel, will continue indefinitely until, to paraphrase the man himself, interest runs out. And considering that the currently scheduled MSG concerts are sold out until sometime in March of next year, interest could be held for a long time.
In this retrospective, I’ve asked what it takes to be a legend, and I think I’ve adequately proved that Bill Joel is, whether you like him or not, an American legend. One could bow down and give up with the often painful experiences life can throw at us, and oftentimes that seems like the easiest thing to do. William Martin Joel, however, never did that; if anything, he managed to scoop up it all up—a career that took many, many failed attempts to get off the ground, the various tumultuous relationships of his personal life, an auto accident that almost destroyed his hands, and a nearly-debilitating predilection towards alcohol—and twisted and molded it into something creative, beautiful, and powerful. And if that doesn’t make someone a legend, I don’t know what does.