BILLY JOEL: AN INNOCENT MAN (1983)
1) Easy Money; 2) An Innocent Man; 3) The Longest Time; 4) This Night; 5) Tell Her About It; 6) Uptown Girl; 7) Careless Talk; 8) Christie Lee; 9) Leave A Tender Moment; 10) Keeping The Faith.
Once again, you gotta give it to Billy — in an era when New Wave, electrofunk, synth-pop, and glam metal were all the rage, going out there to record an entire album of tributes to late 1950s / early 1960s pop, rock, and R&B and making it chart, as well as yield a whole bunch of big hit singles, is a genuine accomplishment if there ever was one. In retrospect, An Innocent Man does not particularly stand out from the general streak of Billy's change-face-records, but in its historic context, it probably holds the record as «least expected thing for Billy to have done at the given moment». This already makes it worth hearing, at least once.
The album, as Billy admits himself, was triggered to life by his divorce from his first wife, which allowed him (finally!) to date hot young Cosmopolitan chicks like Elle Macpherson and Christie Brinkley (whom he finally married two years later) and «feel like a teenager all over again». As a result of this, the seriousness and pessimism of the previous two albums are cast to the wind, and we are invited to a retro-styled rock'n'roll party, where one by one, Mr. Joel impersonates a long series of his idols — R&B entertainers, soul belters, doo-wop crooners, rock'n'rollers, Motown stars, you name it. There is no attempt to veil, conceal, or modernize these influences: on the contrary, the album openly bills itself as a tribute, and should be regarded as such, so there is really no sense in criticism like «this song is a blatant Wilson Pickett rip-off, how can it be good?». The real questions are — (a) how close do these imitations come to recreating the right spirit? and (b) is there any reason to listen to them instead of the real stuff?
Question (a), I think, should rather be answered in the positive. There is no doubting the professionalism of Billy Joel, or of Phil Ramone who agreed to go along with the idea and adapted his production to all the old-time values. There is no doubting, either, the sincerity and adoration that went into this project — Joel really truly loves this music (and why shouldn't he?), and, more arguably but still quite likely, understands its spiritual essence. Throw in his hook-crafting potential, and voilà, all the required ingredients are there. ʽEasy Moneyʼ bangs the ground with typically Pickettish ferociousness, ʽChristie Leeʼ pounds the piano with typically Little Richardish abandon, ʽCareless Talkʼ steals and remixes all the right vocal inclinations from Sam Cooke, ʽTell Her About Itʼ is pulsating with all the right catchy-excited romanticism of Motown girl groups, and so on. An Innocent Man succeeds not only on the surface, but deeper as well — with the understandable reservation that most of the songs and styles imitated here by Billy were never that deep themselves, to begin with.
The second question is trickier. There are even some major Billy Joel fans out there who do not think much of the album, since to them, «this is not the real Billy», and one might even feel offended to have ʽGoodnight Saigonʼ immediately followed up by such a light-hearted pastiche as ʽTell Her About Itʼ. But we are not really discussing this from the point of view of major Billy Joel fans — as far as I am concerned, I have no idea of what exactly is «the real Billy Joel»: for all I know, «the real Billy Joel» could mostly be about wanting to bed hot Cosmopolitan models, so let us just steer clear of the issue for safety reasons. The real concern is whether you could, for instance, intersperse these songs with ʽMustang Sallyʼ, ʽCupidʼ, ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ, ʽSecond That Emotionʼ, etc., and not feel a «cringing» moment whenever a Joel song comes along on the setlist. Or, even worse, a «boring» moment.
My own answer is that I do not. Or, rather, that I think these songs are typically as good as the stuff they are imitating, with one major exception: Billy moves uncomfortably close to «blackface mode» when he is openly imitating the vocal styles of great singers — it is a little ridiculous to hear him try out the vocal attack of Pickett on ʽEasy Moneyʼ, or Sam Cooke's modulation routine on ʽCareless Talkʼ, or go ahead and bawl like Little Richard on ʽChristie Leeʼ. He is a good singer, and he does a fairly decent job with these approximations, but «doing impersonations» is not really quite the same as «paying tribute».
Other than that, I like the results — the brass-punctured fast Motown sweep of ʽTell Her About Itʼ, the Four Season-ish vocal harmony-drenched pop punch of ʽUptown Girlsʼ, the R&B gallop of ʽEasy Moneyʼ (although I thought that, after The Doors had already exploited that rhythm on ʽThe Changelingʼ, there would be little reason for white performers to try it on for size again), and even the soft, echoey Drifters-like style of the title track. I am much less enamored of ʽThe Longest Timeʼ, which sounds as silly and corny as most of the doo-wop that it imitates, and of ʽThis Nightʼ, which sounds like it belongs on Zappa's parodic Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, but I think Little Anthony himself must have been in awe of the melody.
I think that, in the end, it all depends on the level of worship. If you think of all these old tunes as light, friendly entertainment for the simple senses, Billy's copycat imitations, stylistically matching the originals but with sufficient melodic divergencies so as not to count as «stolen items», are equally light, friendly entertainment for the simple senses (more or less the job that Billy Joel, the Artist, was born into this world to carry out). If you put them on a higher pedestal — for instance, as proud expressions of the liberated Afro-American spirit — in that case An Innocent Man might seem misguided and even offensive. If bashing Billy Joel for all the sins of the world is on your agenda, this is a great and innovative way of performing the task. But it really isn't on mine, so I'll just say this: An Innocent Man is nice, harmless fun, and if you take it in the overall context of commercial 1983, it is extraordinarily nice, harmless fun.
So I give it a nice, harmless thumbs up, at least until I can think of a way to prove that ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ boasts a more sophisticated and groundbreaking style of composition than ʽTell Her About Itʼ. For the moment, all I can say is that I prefer Diana Ross as a singer to Billy Joel, but that would be a lame excuse.
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