Billy Joel: The Stranger
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I'm thinking the same thing you are right now. You're thinking, why? Why did William Martin Joel succeed, in fact go beyond mere "success," to become not only an accepted singer and songwriter but a triumphant Grammy-winning multi-platinum-selling pop star? How did he do so by recycling clichés as profundities and thrown-off Broadway cut-outs as new goddamn songs?
"Virginia, they didn't give you quite enough information..."
As much as it hurts to admit, Billy Joel may just be the consummate American pop star—his appeal is that broad, his tenets that mundane. His post-alcoholic beard is the perfect combination of unkempt and inoffensive. Banal, baffling, bewildered, his actions inevitably thwart our desire for crafters of songs to be passionate, articulate, slightly mysterious, somewhat well-groomed. If Joel were a stand-up comic or a lottery-winning truck-driver his behavior would be more apropos, as if your uncle suddenly became a pop star. Instead he swings pendulum-like between Bruce Springsteen and Britney Spears, toeing an irregular line between sympathetic yob and insufferable fuck-up. The Stranger is the lynchpin of this inspired boor shtick: there's no way to ignore the tunefulness and methodical groove of these songs, but you still wanna split his big fat skull with a tire iron.
For his early outings, Billy Joel traipsed about in various dressing gowns borrowed for the evening from his bigger sisters. First he was a boisterous rawk 'n roller, then a mustachioed sensitive singer-songwriter, then a non-mustachioed sensitive singer-songwriter, then the latter with outre lounge trappings, and then all of a sudden he's coming on like a straight Elton John with a pizza-box full of Motown outtakes and denatured showtunes. The Stranger packages this sea change for the very audience it portrays—and if this breed of populism seems hopelessly conceited, think for a minute about the guy who penned these little numbers. 'Cuz it ain't Bono.
What most critics have missed (or ignored) about Joel is the incredible economy of his songs. Every rhythmic swerve and orchestral sweep enacts the drama of the subject matter. And unlike the Stephen Sondheim and glam-rock his voice is ensconced in, it ain't melodrama; it's positively mundano-drama. Weighty philosophical matters like self-actualization of the individual via the escape from familial responsibility ("Anthony's Song"), our mutual complicity in sexual role-playing ("The Stranger"), and the self-seeking route towards dream realization ("Vienna") are tossed around with the grace and precision of a drunken one-legged ballerina. This is in keeping with Joel's unspoken intent—he's chronicling the psychosexual habits and mental minutiae of the people that constitute his vision of "ordinary." And in Billy Joel's world everyone's a loser and a schmoe. With the potential to, like, long for the intangible and shit.
The Stranger encodes its vision of everyday jackasses with an alternating pattern of passionate kisses and rough trade. The big-balled action happens in two songs, both of which are sung from the perspective of guys-who're-gonna-be-makin'-some-waves. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" rocks hard for the fade-in and depicts two hardworking regular Tonys ("saving his pennies for someday" / "at night he becomes a bartender") who strive against Mama's smothering bosom. Economic and familial obligations should all be so easily solved—"hey, I'm movin' out!" We're even given the squeal of tires as the song fades, in case the overall premise has somehow eluded us. In "Only the Good Die Young," aka Paradise Re-Regained (‘I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the Saints," anyone?), the release from societal pressure is implicit instead of explicit—escape from uptight religiosity and sexual tension by getting your rocks off with Billy Boy. If "I might as well be the one" isn't the least-appealing come-on ever, I'm as Catholic as Virginia, but the honesty of its aw-shucksedness is at least refreshing, especially after we've ingested the pap of a certain Grammy-winner on the first side.
Everybody knows "Just the Way You Are" is perfectly disgusting, and I won't waste anyone's time trying to defend it. A deplorable argument for codependency and stasis disguised as acceptance of the real, undercut by one of the most turgid saxophone solos in the history of crap ballads. The fact that it's a breadwinner for Joel makes all the sense in the world. It plays the same role for him that "Bird On a Wire" does for Leonard Cohen: a tepid distillation of his vulnerable side that has "instant standard" pencilled in beneath the first measure of the sheet music. But turn the record over and Billy shows his whip-hand with the baroquely misogynist "She's Always a Woman." A close study of the lyrics will reveal a number of possible interpretations : 1) he's just being a cock (in "she can ruin your faith with her casual lies," the big "F" and little "l" are implied); 2) he's defending femininity with the ages-old boys club saw about complexity and/or the equally well-seasoned one about woman-as-muse ("But she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be"), either of which means he's being a cock and cliche; or 3) he's taunting a rival by proclaiming himself a better player and/or more sensitive ("And the most she will do is throw shadows at you / But she's always a woman to me"). This sort of meta-masculinity doesn't really make for a sensitive portrayal of womanhood, but it's a damn accurate rendering of the way ordinary clowns of the male variety think they're attempting to understand those crazy chicks.
"The Stranger" is the first of two high-concept lowbrow suites that dominate the first side and bring the uneasy feeling that our listening experience will be a shamelessly top-heavy one. Joel delightfully nabs a disco trick or three to cloak his bar-room psychoanalysis, reminding us that the prolonged dance of human attraction always leads to dalliance with the nebulous and frightening "stranger" that we see across the room as well as in the mirror. Bilious metaphysics, perhaps, but an effective and accurate enough poeticization of the cloak-and-dagger routine we indulge in with our loved ones. "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" is Joel whipping out the big West Side Story guns; it's easily both the most sardonic and completely cornball moment of the album. Try to find a line as disdainful as "a couple of paintings from Sears" deployed in any other song written by a multi-millionaire in a song eulogizing the working class. For seven-and-a-half minutes, Joel shuffles us through Broadway Doo-Wop Cloud Cuckooland without really giving a ratty fuck if we care at all about the folks choosing white over red in their Italian restaurant. Let's face it: we don't. But for all his temper tantrums and Christie Brinkley-banging rock star antics, Billy Joel actually does. Or did. In any event, Joel's charisma and the replayability of The Stranger hinge on the fact that he depicts these characters with the appropriate amount of heartfelt detachment—not as they are, but as they perceive themselves to be. Bob Dylan might convince you he empathizes with some poor slob, but Billy Joel really is that dude. It's clear by the time we get to "Vienna," which recasts the popcorn fantasia of the first side's mini-suites into a peculiar breed of sloppy optimism. Almost intolerably sweet and free of sarcasm, it's the kind of thing you might just find yourself empathizing with during that golden moment when the empty glass and last call coincide.
Which is really pretty much the place that The Stranger occupies in our cultural consciousness: it's a whole lotta dumb and a whole lotta fun. You can download every single song from this album on the most rudimentary of filesharing services, despite the fact that the last two are utter crap. The Stranger pushes a pair of boulders right off the unsettling precipice of "She's Always a Woman." "Get it Right the First Time" is moronic self-affirmation set to a rote ditty Elton John could've tossed together while picking up a new Donald Duck costume. "Everybody Has a Dream" is as forgettable as its title, Joel walking through cast-off Tom Waits excreta for four-and-a-half minutes so everybody involved in its creation can have what they really dream of: a finished nine-song album and the promise of a paycheck. Of course, it should come as no surprise that an album that wallows in human beings brought face-to-face with their own mediocrity would go out so limply, the proverbial wad having been blown so hard during the first three quarters.
Joel's yawningly dull transformation into bloated prima donna with ludicrous neo-classical ambitions and a crippling inverse relationship between drinking and actually producing anything took about as little time as it should. His pummeling defeat by Springsteen in the battle to be the voice of the working class led Joel to an odd decision to shitcan the act and attempt to be the poet of fookin' everybody. Consequently, he entered his baroque period: "We Didn't Start the Fire," River of Dreams, lawsuits, and pianos being pushed off of stages—lots of ornate cupolas and shaded flourishes in an attempt to disguise that familiar old brick shithouse lying underneath. While the continued aptness of The Stranger as delusional reality of the young, dumb and shiftless certainly won't rescue Billy Joel from being put out to pasture, it might serve as a salient reminder that even mundanity needs a voice by which to rally, every louse in every bar has a story or three, and verily, only the good die young.