I do not like Billy Joel. I recognize he has talent but let’s say I don’t like the way he uses it. I find his melodies too sappy and saccharine but even when I don’t I often don’t find them compelling enough. I regularly do not like his lyrics. But it’s really the arrangements that get me. And that’s why this record is different for me.
Joel’s songwriting is clearly still in development here. He hasn’t really got as ambitious as he would later, on the one hand and, on the other, he hasn’t quite perfected his particular style of pop song; he doesn’t really sound like the Billy Joel we know and some love. He sounds like other songwriters.
But, to me, this is a strength. Let’s take “Piano Man” for example, far and away the most popular song here. It is very much in the mode of so many of the post-Dylan songwriters, trying to say something profound about a particular place and time, but lacking the lyrical imagination and freedom to get to Dylan’s territory. Even the harmonica parts sound like Dylan. (Joel doesn’t even sound like he would in a few years, though he doesn’t sound like Dylan either, which is something.) But the song, despite how much it’s been overplayed, works very well. The melody is strong. The lyrics are full of keen observations. That wordless chorus grates on me like all wordless choruses, but whatever. It is the one Billy Joel hit that I don’t mind listening to. None of the other songs are really up to that same standard, but some of them are close.
But I think the reason I feel that way about the songs isn’t so much to do with Joel’s songwriting, which is admittedly a little too close to his influences. Rather its the arrangements, which are far, far, far rootsier than the polished soft rock dreck he adopted later in his career. Yes, everyone else was doing this in 1973, but Joel’s performances and those of the musicians around him feel real and honest in the way roots based music sound be, and not how so much of the roots pop of the era sounds. Even when there’s an orchestra, it doesn’t sound like the orchestra was added to help sell records.
Yes, Joel has yet to come into his own on this record but, for me, that’s a good thing. I’d much rather listen to this.