Billy Joel took the highlights from his past albums – vivid lyrics, bouncy piano, and crisp vocals – and crafted what is likely the best recording in his discography.
Joel’s fifth album, The Stranger, gave the pop scene a taste of well-composed songwriting and musical skill. In addition to the ease and grace that Joel plays the piano, nearly every song boasts a bass line that is independent and skillfully crafted. Also present are multiple saxophone solos that range from raspy and aggressive to passionate and beautiful. The drums may be a bit basic, but they are there to complement the rhythm that is created by the piano and bass. The even mix of upbeat sing-alongs and sensitive ballads create an enticing flow that consistently keeps the album entertaining.
In a period of time before hair metal and after early classic rock and roll, Joel developed his own unique blend of pop-inflected, heartfelt rock. His sound in comparison to previous albums isn’t something completely new; rather it is refined and masterfully composed. While many rock bands of the late 70s were making wonderful rock anthems, few did so with the poise and salutation of Joel. The air of mystery that comes with accomplished musicians is transparent for Joel; his honesty and humility as a songwriter were something that was new in the realm of rock. The way he presented songs was with the utmost sincerity and enthusiasm.
Throughout the course of the album’s nine songs, Joel’s piano-driven, pop rock consistently offers something new. From the upbeat, fun-loving anthem, “Only the Good Die Young,” to the heartfelt ballad, “Vienna,” The Stranger keeps it fresh and attractive. Each song contributes a different aspect to the emotional spectrum for listeners. Infatuated lovers, cynical thinkers, and fed-up urbanites can all connect to this album. This is thanks, in part, to Joel’s ability to allow people to see themselves reflected in his music.
Billy Joel has a superb gift for making people see what they normally wouldn’t be able to through a musical medium. He takes words and crafts stories which come alive when listeners hear him sing in his soothing tone. Many artists write about their own personal woes or their philosophies of life in a vague or poetic way. Joel seems to relate to his audience by writing about his audience. There may or may not be a kid named Anthony who works to escape his overrated life, or high school sweethearts named Brenda and Eddie who went through the roller coaster of a long term relationship, but their factuality is unimportant. Joel might be writing about himself, but he does it through writing about others.
His skill doesn’t consist of only one façade either. Whether Joel is stating the oft-thought belief of rebellious city-dwellers in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “And it seems such a waste of time / If that’s what it’s all about / Mama if that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out,” or crooning about a love in “Just the Way You Are,” “Don’t go changing to try and please me / You never let me down before,” he utilizes his vivid lyrics to evoke strong emotions from the listener.
Although a portion of the album is upbeat and fun, the overall theme is slightly darker and more intimate. The Stranger’s cover art shows Joel lounging on a bed, glancing down with a look of despondent contemplation at a mask. On the wall behind him hangs a pair of boxing gloves. Coupled with the lyrics from the title track, a story is created that differs from the other tracks. Joel ditches pseudonyms and third-person narration and tells a personal tale of doubt and identity. The first words Joel lets out are, “Well we all have a face that we hide away forever / And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.” With this introspective song and artwork, Joel “hung up the gloves” and fell victim to someone who had a side that was never shown. The personality from the cover and vulnerability of the song set up the rest of the tracks to undertake a deeper meaning, transcending beyond entertaining tunes.
One of the biggest things that separated The Stranger from Joel’s earlier work was the nearly flawless production. Prior to this album, Joel had recorded with several different producers, including taking on himself the bulk of the production burden for Turnstiles. For The Stranger, Joel enlisted the help of Phil Ramone, who was an award winning producer who had worked with Elton John, Paul Simon, and many more legendary musicians. Ramone’s innovative production techniques gained him much acclaim as a sound engineer. Hearing every piece of Joel’s captivating vocals and the crisp, reverberating of the piano are some of the many ways that Ramone’s production stands out.
What really sets this album apart from his past releases, however, are the little things that complete his songs. From the accelerating and screeching of a motorcycle in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” to the natural, shrill whistle in the title track “The Stranger,” The Stranger comes across as a complete and beautiful album. This album sparked a relationship between Joel and Ramone that would last for the next five albums.
The Stranger was destined for success from the moment it was released. The heavy-themed album, complete with its fun and upbeat songs as well as the darker tunes, was what released the floodgates for Joel’s success. While songs from his past albums gained popularity and earned high spots on the charts, The Stranger was what many consider Joel’s breakthrough album. Each song is a significant part of the album. When it first emerged, The Stranger climbed to #2 on the Billboard 200. In addition, four of its singles went on to the Billboard’Hot 100: “Just The Way You Are” #3, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”#17, “Only the Good Die Young” #24, and “She’s Always a Woman” #17). In 1978, “Just the Way You Are” won both Song and Record of the Year at the 1979 Grammys.
It is nearly impossible to point out specific highlights from this album. Each song displays Joel’s sentimental and theatrical sound. With four songs making it onto the Billboard charts, and all but a few songs being selected to be on “Greatest Hits” compilation CDs, The Stranger is a narrative, musical masterpiece. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” was one of the songs that was not released as a single, yet it became one of Joel’s most beloved hits. The three part song – which transitions from an opening romantic ballad, to an up-tempo firsthand account of a love story, and later into a bittersweet narrative featuring Brenda and Eddie – is one of the most celebrated songs in Joel’s extensive catalogue. Joel’s talent as a lyrical genius and technically-sound pianist created a niche for him that few other artists come close to entering.
After The Stranger erupted with positive feedback and accolades, Joel’s next albums were set to explode as well. Each of his following albums had success on the charts, including multiple #1 songs. Additionally, he received Grammy nods in multiple categories.
Joel’s status as a pop rock icon was solidified with the release of The Stranger. Joel’s upbeat, occasional poignant style of piano rock consistently captured its audience’s attention. If Bruce Springsteen was the epitome of America in the 80s, Joel was the poster boy for New York in the late 70s. Although Joel’s career started in the 70s, it wasn’t prone to the collapse of short-lived rock stars.
Joel wrote relevant and appealing music with each new year. In 2008, a 30th anniversary edition of The Stranger was released, which includes a second disc full of live songs. He took the bar for singer-songwriters and not only raised it, but expanded it beyond the lonely guys with their acoustic guitars. To this day Joel is esteemed and admired as a top-notch musician. With 13 studio albums and handfuls of compilations and live releases, not too many people seem to disagree.
Reviewer: Ryan Glaspell
IRC: Bill Pulice
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