A few days ago I listened to the last song on The Stranger then sat down to write a summary of the album. In my heart, I knew what I felt like saying, but I was unable to actually put the words down. I spent the next few days in a clear state of denial before coming to grips with an awful, yet unavoidable truth. I have become a Billy Joel fan.
This is not a joke; my feelings about Billy Joel have really changed. After a lifetime of passionately and actively disliking Billy Joel, this yearlong endeavor has changed me. Over the course of the last three months, my feelings about the man and his music have gone from contempt to grudging respect to admiration and finally, to fandom. I am shocked at this development but I’m embracing it because it’s real.
This change has been gradual. With each record, I’ve found more and more to like, but The Stranger is the record that finally forced me to embrace Billy Joel and his music.
The Stranger is a huge leap forward from the records that came before it, both in terms of the songwriting and the production. The leap forward is not accidental; The Stranger marks the first collaboration between Billy Joel and producer Phil Ramone. Together, the two of them would go on to produce a 10 year run of hit records but it began with them bringing out the best in each other on this record.
The opening track “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is a song I’ve know almost my whole life, but until now I had not really paid attention to it. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered there are actually other lyrics beyond “Heart attack-ak-ak-ak-ak” and that those lyrics are quite good. Also, the music sets a remarkably different tone than what I heard on the last album. While the opener to Turnstiles, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” looks back to the past, “Movin’ Out” has a very fresh and contemporary feel. The song serves as a statement of purpose that Billy Joel is no longer living in the past.
The rest of side one follows a similar pattern, each song is lyrically engaging, musically dynamic and meticulously produced. The title track falls a little flat for me, but “Just The Way You Are” is outstanding and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is, up until this point, probably the high point of Billy Joel’s career. It’s also a song to which I felt an undeniable personal connection, if you can believe that. Life is full of surprises.
Side two begins with “Vienna,” a musically ambitious and lyrically moving song inspired by Billy’s relationship with his father. Like “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” “Vienna” is another one that I immediately felt a connection to and used as a jumping off point to explore some family history. Think of it as my own personal “Cat’s in the Cradle.” It was after writing about these songs that I realized A Year of Billy Joel was becoming something more than just a rundown of songs; it was doubling as a way for me to come to terms with a past and a family that I sometimes feel guilty about moving so far away from. I have spent years trying to effectively articulate both my appreciation for what my parents gave for me and my frustrations at the fact that I was always distant from my late father. I don’t know if I’ve ever written about these issues in a way that has felt as satisfying as I have when writing about these two songs.
The rest of side two features the hits: “Only The Good Die Young” and “She’s Always a Woman.” I knew both of these songs before I began this project. The former is a fun but slightly creepy song about teenage lust. The latter is another track that upon further examination, I liked a lot more than I expected I would. The final two songs on the record are a step down from the ones that come before it, but the rest of the record is so strong that it hardly matters.
Wow, I genuinely like this record. It’s great and rightfully considered by many to be the best album of Billy Joel’s career. The Stranger completes Billy Joel’s evolution from the young introspective songwriter heard on his first record to a mature, confident and ambitious artist. The record also completes my evolution from a person who dismissed Billy Joel to someone who can only be described as a fan.
I still have nine months to go in A Year of Billy Joel. I have no idea how I’m going to feel about the records that come next, but right now I feel like Rocky Balboa at the end of Rocky IV where he addresses the Russian crowd and tells the world that if he can change, we all can change. Over the last three months, I have changed and now that I have decided to stop fighting the change I’m enjoying my new Billy Joel fandom.
So help me, Joel.