Monday, September 18, 2006

Billy Joel Smackdown

Priv8pete and I got into words over Billy Joel. They ran so long, I decided to liberate them from the comments section. It was all sparked by a passing reference I made to Billy Joel's An Innocent Man as "his best album."

PRIV8PETE: You are daft. Innocent Man is not Billy's best album. That would have to be The Stranger, although I prefer Turnstiles or Cold Spring Harbor (I know, his voice is all screwed up, but I like the songs).

ME: I'm daft? YOU'RE daft! I think Billy Joel is primarily a songwriter more than a performer, which he would probably happily agree with. I think many of his tunes will be covered for many years to come. So though he's had huge success in album sales, I don't really approach him that way. It's more one big body of work. That said, most people would agree with you that "The Stranger" is his best album. (Rolling Stone gives two Joel albums -- and his Greatest Hits -- four stars. "The Stranger" and of all things "Storm Front." Huh?) I like The Stranger a lot. I probably blasted out "Glass Houses" even more. And maybe the most-played -- thanks to a massive early lead -- is "Piano Man.' Of course, Cold Spring Harbor has some good songs but for many obvious reasons doesn't even come close as far as being a satisfying album. But song for song, "An Innocent Man" is the most complete and cohesive album. We know them so well that obviously it would be jarring --but honestly, couldn't you take the songs from "Stranger" and "52nd Street" and "Glass Houses" and put them in a bowl, mix them up and then put them randomly on three CDs and hardly tell the difference? It's not a knock on the songs; just pointing out the fact that they're not really ALBUMS so much as collections of individual songs. Not so with "An Innocent Man," which obviously harkens back to doo-wop stylistically. Those songs could ONLY appear on that album and that cohesiveness makes it hold together as a single album better than any other. And yeah, I love "Turnstiles" too.

PRIV8PETE: So, your rationale for Innocent Man as his "best album" is due to the fact that it seems more cohesive? What if instead of The Longest Time, Uptown Girl and the rest he just had an album full of yodeling? That would still fill your qualification of being more "complete and cohesive" wouldn't it?

I'm not saying that Innocent Man isn't a great album or that it doesn't completely capture the style that he was going for, but I consider it more of a tribute album (so to speak). It's not REALLY Billy Joel; it's his take on his childhood influences. The reason why you could mix up anything from Cold Spring Harbor to 52nd Street (excluding Streetlife Serenade which was a mistake and he basically acknowledges as much with the first song on Turnstiles) is because that sound IS Billy Joel.
So, is Innocent Man the most "complete and cohesive" album that he recorded? Yes. Is it the BEST Billy Joel album? No.

ME: Don't turn cohesive against me. Streetlife Serenade is cohesively bad. I meant cohesive not just in terms of sound, but in terms of the ALBUM, which is what we are discussing here: a work of music that you sit down and listen to from beginning to end and that takes you somewhere. As an ALBUM, Innocent Man is more satisfying and involving than any other Billy Joel CD. Others during his run of very good CDs with lots of good songs (Stranger, Glass Houses, 52nd St, Tunrstiles) are just as much fun to listen to and sing along with. And yes, The Stranger has that whistling at the beginning and the end so teenagers know they've listened to a work of "art" and not a random collection of songs. But they almost all are random collections of (fun, very good) songs. Many of my favorite artists are basically singles artists who don't need to defend their music as less important or lasting simply because they work in short stories rather than the novels that are Albums. Billy Joel, by and large, was a singles guy. The rare exception is An Innocent Man. And now you've got me arguing that it is the exception that proves the rule, that it's somehow different than all the other albums and only deserves to be called his best "album" because of the fine print in the contract. And that's not what I mean at all: I think it is pure Billy Joel because the music he celebrates on it is so near and dear to him and the wellspring of everything he ever wrote. You say it's less like pure Billy Joel because it's an homage. I say it's closer to his heart and therefore more emotional and satisyfing and more Billy Joel-ish than all the rest. The songs:

Easy Money
An Innocent Man
The Longest Time
This Night
Tell Her About It
Uptown Girl
Careless Talk
Christie Lee
Leave A Tender Moment Alone
Keeping The Faith

Like all his albums, one or two are weaker and which ones depends on your preference. Maybe Careless Talk or Easy Money (which you don't like but I do).

But I think it has a joy, a release from being relevant or aiming for the pop charts that he hadn't felt so strongly since Piano Man. Joel was maybe smarting from his Beatle-esque Nylon Curtain, which was a relative flop for him and only went double platinum. I think he was hoping for the critical respect he rarely got and was burned bad -- he even got lambasted for his Vietnam song, though veterans of Nam later honored it (they might have regretted that after hearing Born in the USA a few years later). His response was to say to hell with radio, to hell with the critics, I'm gonna do something for ME and he ended up delivering one of the biggest hits of his career with more top ten hits and more top twenty hits that he would ever see on one album before or since. And it was a complete shock since the nod to vintage doo-wop was hardly calculated to win over critics or deejays. An Innocent Man comes from his heart and it's in some ways his most personal album: this is what I love, he says. And it's his best.


Ed Sikov said...

I never liked Billy Joel.

Michael in New York said...

Be careful you don't say that in the Bronx. He's a good songwriter, I believe. That's his real talent, though I have really enjoyed seeing him in concert. But very meat and potatoes, or even just meatloaf.