On this album Billy Joel makes me think he’s the pop version of Aaron Copland (in his most Americana phase) – an eminently talented musician who thinks that the best music is the music the people like, not the music he is fully capable of writing if he were more of a snob. I side with the snobs most of the time.
Joel has created a concept album of the music of his youth. The concept itself is pretty damn loose – these things usually are – but at least there’s some kind of idea animating this pretty purely nostalgic enterprise. What is that idea? Each song is in a different style, an homage to the groups and artists that inspired him when he was still young and didn’t have adult cares and concerns.
When I first heard some of these songs, I really didn’t think Joel was doing much of a service to these artists. But with a few listens I’ve come to find that the majority of them are worthy tributes, even if Joel rarely writes anything on the equal of those artists he’s paying tribute to. (And at least one, “Keeping the Faith,” doesn’t sound to me like any pre British Invasion rock and roll that I’ve heard; it sounds like the ’80s facsimile.)
The impressive thing is the range, really. Joel is no Wilson Pickett or James Brown, but “Easy Money” is probably the best thing on here. (Though when I first heard it, I really didn’t like it.) To be able to pull off “Easy Money” and “The Longest Time” and “Uptown Girl” is pretty damn impressive.
But that’s all it is to me, it’s an impressive feat of performance. I still don’t love his songs or his lyrics. And I don’t love the music he loves. Moreover, I can’t say I love the idea of a nostalgia trip like this, particularly one to a time when I was not alive. I know the music of that era pretty damn well, given I listened to it growing up, and I don’t need a new version of it for when I was a toddler.