Billy Joel - The Stranger Music Album Reviews

Billy Joel - The Stranger Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit Billy Joel’s greatest album, a sublimely crafted breakthrough that finds the meeting ground of the romantic and the mundane.

The Stranger is the reason we know who Billy Joel is. Before the album, his fourth for Columbia and fifth as a solo artist, Joel had two Top 40 songs: “Piano Man,” about a guy (Joel) who got stuck playing bar tunes to a bunch of drunks, and “The Entertainer,” about a guy (Joel) who got stuck playing music for a fickle audience and whose label cut that other song in half just to fit on the radio. Joel was raised in Hicksville, Long Island, classically trained on the piano, and giddily admired the real rock’n’roll of the 1950s. He was something of an anomaly on the label of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, not an impassioned poet, prophet, or star, just a guy with a choir boy’s tenor who loved melody and technique and when songs sounded good. He wasn’t his label’s priority and he wasn’t much of a name, but then he went ahead and made an album filled with classics.

Joel says he didn’t make The Stranger like it was his last shot at success, but it’s hard to see it any other way. Famously, Joel likes to say that he didn’t want to put the biggest song on the album. “That’s one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard,” Linda Ronstadt apparently told Joel after hearing “Just the Way You Are” in the studio. A lot of people have since agreed with her, including those at the Recording Academy, which gave Joel the Grammys for Record and Song of the Year.

The success of The Stranger did a lot to erase, or at least ameliorate, Billy Joel’s reputation as an aggrieved musician who made a point of despising the dog and pony show of music promotion. He cut his teeth as a young musician, playing on three albums before his 1971 solo debut: The Hassles and Hour of the Wolf, with his bar band the Hassles, and the proto-metal Attila, with his buddy and fellow former Hassle Jon Small. The albums weren’t notable enough even to call them failures. His debut, however, was a failure and objectively fucked up. For some reason, Artie Ripp, who produced the album and signed Joel despite his commercial track record, simply didn’t notice or care that the mixing machine was set incorrectly, leaving Joel’s vocals on Cold Spring Harbor pitched up “like Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Joel smashed his test pressing, and still claims to hate the album.

After Cold Spring Harbor, Joel drove across the country to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Elizabeth Weber and her 5-year-old son Sean. (The hiccup was that Weber was married to Jon Small, who figured his wife and son were kidnapped and went West to locate them and bring them back to Long Island. Weber later married and managed Joel.) In Los Angeles, Joel struck a deal with Columbia and made two albums, Piano Man and Streetlife Serenade. While the former had its champions, not many people liked Streetlife Serenade. Stephen Holden, who eventually wrote glowingly about Joel for The New York Times, opened his Rolling Stone review, “Billy Joel’s pop schmaltz occupies a stylistic no man’s land where musical and lyric truisms borrowed from disparate sources are forced together.” Joel returned to New York in 1975 and made Turnstiles, which Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called “more obnoxious.”

The secrets to The Stranger’s success, however, are scattered across Joel’s first four albums, unfortunately buttressed by a lot of unremarkable songs that lack their own punch. Take “James,” from Turnstiles, inspired by Joel’s high school friend and bandmate Jim Bosse. Joel lightly excoriates James for pausing his artistic ambitions to go to college and “living up to expectations.” The melody is not particularly gripping and the chiding doesn’t feel particularly deserved. Now turn to The Stranger, which opens thrillingly with another mild diatribe against middle class professional ambition, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” As soon as the needle drops, Joel is smashing on his piano and the bass is kicking up the groove, playing with gusto and rhythm.

Also from Turnstiles is “Summer, Highland Falls,” my favorite pre-Stranger Joel song. His piano chords are enchanting, and he coins his greatest phrase from a non-hit: “It’s either sadness or euphoria.” As charming as “Summer, Highland Falls” is, it’s also absurdly wordy: “How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies/Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies.” Again, fast forward to 1977 and “Only the Good Die Young,” Joel’s cleverest Stranger song lyrically: “You didn’t count on me/When you were counting on your rosary,” and, “You say your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation.” It’s a hoot.

Joel made The Stranger with his road band, largely the same group who played on Turnstiles. The big difference was that Joel produced Turnstiles himself but brought in the well-regarded Phil Ramone for The Stranger, with whom he struck a long-term relationship. Joel claims that he chose to work with Ramone—known for work with Paul Simon and Phoebe Snow and co-producing Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s A Star Is Born—instead of the legendary Beatles producer George Martin because Martin wanted the pianist to record his album with session musicians, which Joel attempted to poor results on Streetlife.

Ramone liked Joel’s band—most importantly comprised of bassist Doug Stegmeyer, drummer Liberty DeVitto, and multi-instrumentalist Richie Cannata—and wanted to bring their live energy to life in the studio, where things had rarely clicked for Joel. One of the most frequent criticisms in his early career was his inability to translate the magnetic personality of his live performances onto his records. An early 1977 concert preview from the Los Angeles Times read: “A common question about the 27-year-old New Yorker is why such a scintillating performer hasn’t become a star.” Later, as if to prove the point, Joel gathered his unheralded songs on the 1981 live compilation Songs in the Attic where the early material absolutely soars and the crowds erupt.

With Ramone behind the boards and the band intact, Joel made an album with a verve and attitude he’d never achieved, sounding like an actual rock star, one who’s sardonic but hopeful. Almost every song on The Stranger has one accusatory line or another, a facet of his lyricism that Joel is quick to attribute to the general unhappiness of a person whose father, a Jewish refugee of Nazi Germany, purportedly told him as a little boy, “Life is a cesspool.” I’d be naïve, however, to try to argue that Joel made depressing songs, no matter how depressed he was while he was making them. Joel is a straightforward, often simplistic lyricist, and he composed primarily in the major key. And it’s that tension, the meeting of bombast and the mundane, that makes The Stranger the greatest success in his catalog.

The juxtaposition bursts open on The Stranger’s centerpiece “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Across seven and a half minutes, Joel tells the superbly ordinary tale of Brenda and Eddie, high school sweethearts turned divorcées reuniting for dinner. The music tells another story, as Joel and his piano are accompanied by a carnivalesque swirl of accordion, saxophone, tuba, and the works, and it’s all for lines of unadulterated chitchat, such as, “Things are OK with me these days/Got a good job, got a good office/Got a new wife, got a new life/And the family is fine.” The music, understandably, is most jubilant when it soundtracks Brenda and Eddie’s good ol’ days, but those yesteryears aren’t exactly exceptional: “Nobody looked any finer/Or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner.”

Joel’s not alone as a singer-songwriter championing normal folks and everyday life, but there’s something so unbelievably plain about Brenda and Eddie, and the uncomplicated way Joel concocts and presents them, like when he seems to run out of material near the song’s end and rhymes, “That’s all I heard about Brenda and Eddie/Can’t tell you more than I told you already,” that’s palpably sad when set against his musical scenery. It’s as if Joel is saying all the Brendas and Eddies out there deserve the royal treatment they got back in the day, if only for a night, because we’ve all got some regrets so let’s reminisce and have a drink and a laugh—or maybe he’s not, and the whole thing’s a sendup of two people who really could stand to keep ploughing ahead with their really regular lives because they’re not getting any better. With “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” Joel paints love as too banal even to be romantic, a commonplace emotion that thrills briefly before living continues.

Following the winding epic of dwindling hopes is “Vienna,” a compact tearjerker built on the lilting little piano melody that introduces the tune. Whereas the disenchantment lurks in the subtext of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” “Vienna” is straightforwardly melancholic, ironically making it The Stranger’s most empathetic and heartwarming song. It’s about growing up and taking things as they come, and Joel and the band move calmly through the song, like they’re demonstrating how to play a ballad for students. Yet Joel can’t help but lecture even when he’s being supportive. While he’s likely singing to himself, there’s ambiguity as to whether he thinks he, his character, or his narrator is somehow right or wrong in his actions or advice. As sweet as it can sound, “Vienna” pairs disappointment with aspiration, with a melody that’s alternately whimsical and maudlin.

Joel also looks to diagnose humanity on “Vienna,” something he does often across The Stranger while still mostly writing about familiar things or people; “Just the Way You Are,” “She’s Always a Woman,” and “The Stranger,” for example, were written for or about Elizabeth Weber. He’s thinking of the bigger picture while his eyes are focused squarely on what’s in front of him, lending an idiosyncratic air to his words, straddled somewhere between profound and puzzling, like an author who purposely contorts a cliché. On the title track, for instance, Joel gets at the common phenomenon of feeling like we change our personalities for different settings—“Well we all have a face/That we hide away forever”—only to get specific about what those faces or masks are: “Some are satin, some are steel/Some are silk, and some are leather.” I can’t think of many people who categorize their moods by fabric. In the end, Joel winds up searching for meaning and is unable to make up his mind; a definitive truth remains elusive. The hit ballads, too, are built on self-doubt and fear, making them Trojan horses of scorn that an aging Frank Sinatra could cover like the singer of the world’s cheapest wedding band, as happened with “Just the Way You Are.”

And, obviously, “Just the Way You Are” and “She’s Always a Woman” don’t sound resentful; they’re absolutely doe-eyed. Because Billy Joel, as he discovered with The Stranger, couldn’t help but make hits, songs that embraced melody at the risk of being labeled schmaltz. “She’s Always a Woman” is balanced and warm like a lullaby, something you could easily think you’d heard before but just can’t place, instantly familiar but fresh and stirring in its own right. “She’s Always a Woman” is the sparest song on The Stranger but the principles of sharp songwriting with understated production remain across the record as Joel constructs monster melodies and choruses with his band. “Those songs—they’re built like the Rock of Gibraltar,” Bruce Springsteen once said of Joel’s work. “Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.”

With his compositional gifts and unfussy writing, Joel made a hit record that’s mostly about how life just is, how good things come and good things go and it seems like we’re stuck in the middle of it. Joel, however unwittingly, accentuates The Stranger’s themes with the album’s least interesting songs, the closing “Get It Right the First Time” and “Everybody Has a Dream.” The former, with its boilerplate chipperness, is similar to a Piano Man cut, and it culminates with him trying to make a move and leave a good first impression. And then, on “Everybody Has a Dream,” Joel adopts something like a preacher’s rasp to say that his true dream is for love and a quiet home life, juxtaposing the domesticity with “everybody” else’s silly pipe dreams. What the two songs lack are clear foils, someone for Joel to contest or present as somehow pitiable. There is no God-fearing Virginia, no silk-masked Stranger, no “crazy child,” just Joel alone, trying to make sense of himself or where he is.

There are two props on the cover of The Stranger: the theatre mask, which reflects the words of the title song, and, obscured in shadows, a pair of boxing gloves. Joel boxed briefly as a teenager before a punch to the face broke his nose and ended the fun of the hobby. “The last fight I had, one that was actually in a ring, was with a guy who was a terrible boxer,” he recalled of his final opponent. “That’s when I realized that no matter how ‘bad’ I think I am, there’s always somebody badder.” Suited and barefoot on The Stranger, Joel, 28 years old, kneels on the bed and looks down at the mask on the pillow, representing his album, his songs, a desire to make something of his own, something new and successful. But the gloves dangle like an albatross. He had fought and gotten knocked down; now it was his time to land one.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Billy Joel - The Stranger Music Album Reviews Billy Joel - The Stranger Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on July 04, 2021 Rating: 5


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