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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Billy Joel: Fantasies & Delusions


1) Opus 3. Reverie (Villa D'Este); 2) Opus 2. Waltz # 1 (Nunley's Carousel); 3) Opus 7. Aria (Grand Canal); 4) Opus 6. Invention In C Minor; 5) Opus 1. Soliloquy (On A Separation); 6) Opus 8. Suite For Piano (Star-Crossed); 7) Opus 5. Waltz # 2 (Steinway Hall); 8) Opus 9. Waltz # 3 (For Lola); 9) Opus 4. Fantasy (Film Noir); 10) Opus 10. Air (Dublinesque).

Try and make a hit record out of this. Seven years into doing nothing much of anything, Billy finally decided that it was time to branch out. If Paul McCartney can do this — and Paul McCart­ney hasn't even been much of a «piano man» anytime in his life — why not Billy Joel? Going classical should be a natural thing for an artist who'd already explored so many different roads (in fact, he'd already experimented with the classical format a long time ago — remember ʽNocturneʼ from his solo debut?); and if you are a piano player by trade, it is only natural that you should begin diligently and humbly, with a set of piano pieces rather than anything as bombastic and pretentious as an oratorio (eat that, Sir Paul).

As a champion of the simple folks, Billy does not set his sights particularly high or cast his net particularly wide. This is certainly not «modern classical», nor does it show any influences of old-school innovators like Debussy, nor does it attempt to cover too much technically challenging ground — although even the way those pieces were written, Billy did not dare play them himself, and passed this honor to his friend, Richard Hyung-ki Joo, a British-Korean pianist specializing in shows that combine classical music with comedy. Not that there is any attempt at comedy on Fantasies & Delusions (unless you think that Billy Joel going classical is in itself sufficient rea­son for comedy). There is simply an attempt to write a bunch of waltzes, ballads, scherzos, and nocturnes (no mazurkas detected, though), largely in the style of Chopin — the best combination of exquisiteness with accessibility imaginable — with maybe just a little bit of Liszt and Rach­maninoff thrown in for good measure. Oh, and just one brief quasi-Bach piece (ʽInvention In C Minorʼ), over in just a minute.

Now, how could I ever rate this? I do not review classical music, unless bits of it happen to be incorporated into progressive rock albums, since any music that is properly «composed», that is, put down in sheetnote form (Tin Pan Alley notwithstanding), requires a very different writing approach, and from that point of view, Billy Joel is no exception. It is the easiest thing in the world to say that Chopin rules and Billy Joel sucks (and it is highly probable that it would be true), but you'd need to say why, and this requires serious musicological analysis that I would not be capable of providing.

On a layman level, I would just say this. The pieces sound «accomplished» — I think they would have earned a reasonably high score on any music school graduation test. The general rules of mid-19th century music making are adhered to fairly well; at the very least, it's not as if Billy were occasionally hopping into Broadway territory or anything. (Well, maybe once or twice he does, but then, it's always possible to count that as artistic license). He understands Chopin and the other romantics — that much, I think, we can all admit. Whether he can replicate them, how­ever, not to mention add something of his own to this replication, is a different matter.

In the case of Chopin, at least, Chopin's best piano pieces are extremely catchy, even for the untrained ear — we all recognize the waltz in C sharp minor well enough even without being able to identify the piece — due to wondrously well worked out and strategically repeated main themes. The most surprising element about Billy's exercises, however, is that «catchiness» does not even begin to enter the picture — and this coming from one of pop music's greatest master of sheer «hookery»! The pieces sound «nice», but the themes lack individuality and character, never take any musical risks, and, overall, simply consist of playing various scales in different tempos and at different volumes. Some of the pieces are more dynamic than others, but certainly not enough to generate «drama». Enough, perhaps, to be used for a soundtrack to a quiet evening in a local (Italian?) restaurant. Hardly more than that.

Which begs for the question: why? In interviews, Billy himself has admitted that it was just an experiment, nothing too serious or ambitious about it, and that he himself was surprised that it managed to sell more than a few copies. Nothing too surprising, I'd say, considering the huge army of Joel fanaticists who'd probably buy anything associated with the man, even if he decided to sing Wagner arias to an accompaniment of Jew's harp and washboard. (On second thought, I'd definitely buy that, too). But what would be the posterior use of this product? If it managed to fulfill an educational purpose — for instance, increase the interest of at least a small chunk of these buyers in classic romantic piano pieces — more power to Billy. More likely, however, it just prompted some of these buyers to rave about how «Billy's towering genius allows him to create highbrow music along with the best of 'em!», a reaction that Billy himself would explicitly distance himself from (but secretly might enjoy).

Consequently, upon deliberating, even though I do not actively «hate» what I have heard, I still give the record a thumbs down. It is humble and vain at the same time: humble, since the chosen musical style is devoid of formal bombast, and vain, since, want it or not, it triggers comparison with the «academic greats», and, consequently, still has a bit of that «I want to be the greatest sorcerer in all the world» spirit to it. Of course, this is ironically reflected in the album's title — and the compositions are more «delusions» than «fantasies» by definition. Nobody needs to hear this, really; nor are the late Artur Rubinstein or Vladimir Horowitz shaking in their graves at the glorious Steinway sound coming from under the fingers of Mr. Joo here. Oh, and, to add injury to insult, this whole damn thing runs for seventy-five minutes — which is more than all of Chopin's Etudes put together, so, in a highly improbable situation where you might be tempted... just do yourself a favor and do not fall for bland facsimiles. Or at least consult your local musicologist.

PS. I especially like how exquisitely they labeled all of Billy's compositions as opera, and then shuffled them around so that the track listing looks like a genuine recital. Yes, ladies and gentle­men, Waltz No. 2 was chronologically written after ʽFantasyʼ, not right after Waltz No. 1, and we have to reflect that, or else we will be disrespectful to the composer with our inaccurate listing. Even if the entire catalog is not too likely to be expanded in the future... then again, just recast all of his previous compositions as Lieder and you have yourself a friggin' Schubert in the works.

Check "Fantasies & Delusions" (CD) on Amazon


  1. "Chopin's best piano pieces are extremely catchy"
    Here you answer at least partly your own question how to rate this music. Then a gazillion composers from the 19th Century beat BJ. Another possible angle is atmosphere. Then Debussy and Mussorgsky (A Tear) are vastly superior (and Mussorgsky is catchy too).

  2. Well, it was a hit album, sort of - -#1 on the classical chart. I guess there were enough hardcore Billy Joel fans to outnumber the usual buyers of classical music. I doubt if there was a lot of overlap!
    I saw Billy a few months after the release of this album on one of the Billy/Elton “Face-to-Face” tours. He mentioned the album, but didn’t play any of it, saying he wasn’t a good enough pianist. But then he said that people were overlooking that he had done stuff like that before – and then launched into “Prelude/Angry Young Man”. I’m not sure that he proved his point!
    I’m not a real student of classical music, either, but I do disagree with you on one point. Billy had mentioned over that years that Debussy was an influence (“Streetlife Serenader”, for example), and I hear that here. Old Claude’s “16 Preludes” produces a similar mood to these pieces. Abstract, but I would guess that an expert might say that these lack the depth of the masters, but I can’t say that for sure.
    This really a mood album – if you’re not in the mood, you won’t like it. If you are, you might. Nice background music, but that’s about it.