BILLY JOEL: THE STRANGER (1977)
1) Movin' Out (Anthony's Song); 2) The Stranger; 3) Just The Way You Are; 4) Scenes From An Italian Restaurant; 5) Vienna; 6) Only The Good Die Young; 7) She's Always A Woman; 8) Get It Right The First Time; 9) Everybody Has A Dream.
Add a good producer to Turnstiles, and you get The Stranger — Billy's critical and commercial zenith; indeed, a good candidate for «Billy Joel at his ultimately possible best». Phil Ramone had only just produced Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years, a bright example of singer-songwriterish soft-rock elevated to high artistry level, so Billy's interest in the man was natural, and laudable, seeing as how the poor production quality of Turnstiles was among that album's weightiest flaws. And when I say «poor production quality», I do not merely mean engineering and mixing — I mean choice of arrangements, lyrics-to-melody matching, excessive reliance on imitations and clichés, and other such things for which Joel could have used a good mentor by his side. The Stranger corrects that mistake.
But first, about Billy's own «progress». From my general point of view, the value of the average Billy Joel album can be aptly described with the formula «catchiness divided by self-importance» — in other words, the heavier the message, the cringier the impression. In that respect, The Stranger is a major improvement over Turnstiles: there is no big overriding concept here, such as «Los Angeles, the Whore of Babylon, vs. New York, the Thinking Man's City», or «The Artist and His Management». The lyrical and emotional content of the album still strive for seriousness, but they are scattered all over the map and rarely impose on the listener in a brutal manner — even such a magnum opus as ʽScenes From An Italian Restaurantʼ is merely an understated narrative; and in most cases, words and music combine with each other quite sensibly.
Speaking of the music, the album's loudest tracks now consistently resemble Supertramp — the same kind of glossy vaudeville combined with elements of «progressive» complexity and delivered in an atmosphere of bitter irony. And insanely catchy — ʽMovin' Outʼ is one of the liveliest tunes about the trials and tribulations of hard-working immigrants ever written. You listen, you have a good time, you tap your feet, you play air guitar, and you sympathize for poor Anthony working in the grocery store. (Of course, soon enough he might be hitting it off with Karen Lynn Gorney, but Billy's vision is not always that far-reaching). The main melody, especially when played on solo piano, stands way too close to the instrumental coda of Clapton's ʽLaylaʼ for comfort, but this is just an impressionistic observation, not really a criticism.
In fact, by this point in time criticizing Billy for lack of «originality» becomes a moot point — the man has made a living out of thriving on other people's ideas, clinging on to their catchiest bits, re-piecing them together «billy-lite» and introducing as much minor variation as possible so as to avoid technical (or legal) complications. Listen intensely enough to these songs and chances are you will come up with a suitable prototype, either melodic or stylistic, for each one, distilled and diluted for easier consumption, but always with that little «pretense to emotional depth» — just the kind of thing that drives professional Joel-haters so crazy. On the other hand, you'd have to be really stuck up to generate hatred vibes for these songs: as transparent as their structure and emotional content is, they always value «craft» over «bloat».
Thus, the ballad ʽJust The Way You Areʼ clearly takes its cues from 10cc's ʽI'm Not In Loveʼ, from the proto-New Age keyboard sound right down to the psychedelic vocal harmonies. The tempos are a bit faster, the sax solos bring the whole thing closer to lounge jazz, and the lyrics completely dispense with 10cc's irony. This helped it win the Grammy for both «Record of the Year» and «Song of the Year» and eventually turn into a modern vocal jazz classic (the presence of Phil Woods certainly had something to do with it as well), even though in terms of composing it is one of the simplest and laziest pieces on the entire album — the whole song rides on one generic groove from beginning to end, and its ability to charm the listener depends mostly on the listener's vulnerability to Joel's charisma.
Perfectly crafted ballads also include ʽViennaʼ and ʽShe's Always A Womanʼ, both of these rounded up and smoothed out so much better than, for instance, ʽShe's Got A Wayʼ, that it is impossible to deny how far Billy has progressed in half a decade. ʽViennaʼ is really good — a much more sensible candidate for «Song of the Year» if you really had to choose from a Billy Joel album: the lyrics are seriously above average for the man, with «Vienna» unexpectedly used as a metaphor for taking it easy and settling down (like Billy's own father did), and the music would be good enough for Neil Young on a lazy day. It is not entirely clear what that decidedly Parisian accordeon break is doing on a track named ʽViennaʼ, but then again, Austria is known as the homeland of the instrument, so maybe Billy is simply clearing up our stereotypes here.
The title track and ʽScenes From An Italian Restaurantʼ are arguably the two songs here written in an attempt to appease the «demanding» segment of the public — longer, more complex (multi-part), and more ideologically ambitious than the rest. For the main theme of ʽThe Strangerʼ, Billy came up with a somber Morricone-style melody that Phil had him whistle rather than dress up in a complex arrangement; not my cup of tea outside a good Western, but reasonably atmospheric as an intro to the main part of the song, which sounds kinda like Leo Sayer in a bad mood. (This is not really an accusation, since, come to think of it, Leo Sayer is never in a bad mood). As far as catchy funk-pop goes, ʽThe Strangerʼ qualifies, but its quasi-Freudian lyrical message, urging you to "let your lover see the stranger in yourself", is not exactly mindblowing, as is the music.
ʽScenesʼ are much better, probably the best track on the album: seven and a half minutes of more than decent music-hall piano pop, telling a simple, unadorned nostalgic story of two lovers that hardly offers any serious insights into the subject (not since Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage it doesn't), but you are not forced to dig deep into it — just enjoy, if you can, the piano riffs of the slow part and the catchy boppiness of the fast part, including the "whoa-whoa"s, which are cute, funny, and make much more sense than choosing an abstract "Italian Restaurant" as the backdrop for everything that is happening when the music itself has nothing specifically Italian about it. Watch out for the clarinet breaks — lite-jazz fans will appreciate Richie Cannata's work, I think.
All in all, speaking about massively commercial pop albums of the time, The Stranger is certainly no Rumours when it comes to sharpness, intensity, and pure compositional talent — rather, it is in the same league with Hotel California, as a finely designed and produced, relatively adequate and memorable collection of pop songs which (and this is one of its major advantages) still sounds fresh and enjoyable. Come to think of it, Joel has to be commended for not sticking exclusively to the trendy styles of the times — with his talents and instincts, he could have easily turned half of the record into stuffy disco grooves and the other half into Barry Manilow and still win in the short run. As it is, he won in the long run: The Stranger is still capable of garnering new fans in the 21st century, with its clever mix of then-contemporary and retro ideas. And even the album sleeve remains weirdly attractive with its «masked mystery» pantomime, rather than just another expressionless photo of The Piano Man. With all the usual reservations, I give the album a thumbs up — I could perhaps even find a slot for it on a later schedule, if I am in a specific mood for «lite-art-cabaret entertainment with a rock production angle» or something.
(Except I would probably have to cut off the last track: Billy as a gather-round-the-Christmas-tree gospel preacher of future happiness on ʽEverybody Has A Dreamʼ is an inevitable evil if we agree that the album requires a Grand Finale / Happy Ending, but I'd rather have it end with ʽViennaʼ, on a humbler note. Taste, you're a bitch.)
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