1977, Music

The Stranger (1977) by Billy Joel

I have avoided Billy Joel albums my entire life. I wasn’t sure why until I listened to this record.

I know two of these songs really well. I was having a really hard time figuring out how I knew them because I have never consciously listened to Joel and because the Oldies station I grew up listening to wouldn’t have played music made this late on it unless it was made by Fleetwood Mac or a Canadian band. I figured maybe it was my mom but I asked my dad first. Turns out, it was my dad who had either this record or a greatest hits record, which seems to have only ever been played in my audience prior to my parents separating. So maybe that’s why I never listened to him, because two songs here remind me of a time in my life that is so long ago (and is associated with few but unhappy memories) but I really doubt that’s the real reason. These memories just came up when I listened to this record. The main reason I have avoided him will soon become apparent.

“Movin’ Out” is a song I want to like, with its acerbic lyrics and its edge (prior to that saxophone). But it’s so damn Paul McCartney in the verses that it’s almost embarrassing. But McCartney probably would have had a better sax part in his song. This is the best song on the album and its a blatant pastiche of one of Joel’s influences. We’re not off to a good start. (At least that 1950s teenage drama end of the song elevates it a bit.)

I regret to inform your that the title track is not based on The Stranger. It stars with some kind of piano bar noodling and then features a whistling solo (though I will take that over some smooth jazz saxophone). I don’t quite know what Joel is trying to say here but I will say that I don’t hate the neutered funk in the verses. That bridge is basically sub Steely Dan.

I am not sure I can put into words how much I hate “Just the Way You Are,” one of the songs from my childhood that probably recalls memories of my parents together. This is basically the epitome of bloodless 70s soft rock featuring that most 70s of instruments, the Fender Rhodes, with the most cliche smooth jazz saxophone part. It’s pablum. But the lyrics make it worse: I think what passed for enlightened or progressive in 1977 now sounds like male dominance hiding under a veneer of acceptance. Joel still wants to control her, he just wants to control her in a less traditional way. Lovely. (Also, he’s saying she’s dumb, right?)

“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is supposed to the big showpiece here, that stands as one of his great works. The problem for someone like me, who listens to way too much prog rock and art rock, is that the song-as-suite is old hat. The Beach Boys released the first one, “Good Vibrations” 11 years before Joel took this stab at it. Joel’s version is just so much less interesting than the best examples of this style of writing and it’s got that damn 70s smooth jazz sax (and an orchestra! because the sax wasn’t enough!) comes in whenever I think I’m warming to him. (But wait, they go pseudo dixieland for a moment! Maybe I should forgive him!) Joel’s lyrics are about the mundane, which is likely why he’s so popular. But that doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t give a shit about this couple.

Alright, I was going to continue to do song-by-song thoughts but this is exhausting. Here are some stray thoughts about the b side:

  • Let’s say that “She’s Always a Woman” rubs me the wrong way too, though its music is much better than “Just the Way You Are.”
  • Joel was almost thirty at this point but there are two songs on side B that appear to be about deflowering women.
  • “Vienna” is the other candidate for the best song on the album.

Joel is an accomplished musician as is this band. But they make music I don’t like and I don’t like Joel’s songs. This is supposed to be his best album. Much like with KISS and Destroyer, if this is Joel’s best album, I don’t want to hear the other ones.

So whether or not this brings back bad memories of my parents together, I dislike it because it’s safe and bloodless and lacks idiosyncrasy.


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