Billy Joel’s career can be described as a series of ups and downs, and he had no greater up than his 1977 effort The Stranger. Joel had found surprise success with now all time classic song “Piano Man”, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with producer Phil Ramone that he would give us an especially good album experience, and oh boy did he deliver. Billy Joel’s 1977 record The Stranger is a delight and a fundamentally New York City record. New York is less of a setting than a character in this album, and while The Stranger isn’t as explicitly New York as a lot of great records, the city’s influence is undeniable, infectious, and makes for a great fourth stop for this month’s training plan.
At a glance, The Stranger seems to be nothing more than just a collection of songs, and it would be a good record if that was the case, but upon closer inspection The Stranger is, in fact, a unified album experience. This album can be viewed as a collection of snapshots, almost like musical polaroids of moments and stories in New York. While New York had been criticized and used in negative ways artistically around this time (think Scorsese’s 1975 masterwork Taxi Driver), Billy Joel finds beauty in his city. He gives us youthful pride, ambition, and denunciation of the prototypical “American Dream” in “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song”. A balladic love song finds its place in the form of “Just the Way You Are”. “Only the Good Die Young” provides an endlessly fun call to action to enjoy youth while you have it, brilliantly placed after the slow, calm track “Vienna” encourages Americans to slow down and smell the flowers. My personal favorite track comes in the form of the over 7 minute long song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” which says almost as much about choosing wine as it does rushing blindly into love and making commitments you shouldn’t. All this and much more in a modest 42 minute runtime, The Stranger delivers plenty of substance to chew on (which you know I love) while still delivering on the ever important “sounding good” factor. A delightful album with layers, you already know I can’t wait to sink my teeth into this musical cake again.
This is the part where I have to single out one aspect of this album that takes it to that fabled next level, and this one is hard. This album is so well rounded, in its lyrics, instrumentals, vocals, all around energy, it kind of just delivers on all fronts. This one is complicated because Billy Joel’s previous album Turnstiles was a flop, and then when Phil Ramone came around Joel was able to use his talents to make his best work. Even knowing that, and having a deep appreciation for the instrumentals on this record, the vocals and lyrics are just too good. I find not singing all of these songs out loud to be a genuine challenge, and while Joel’s vocals are good, it is the lyrics and energy that Joel brings that make this album so damn fun. Billy Joel’s lyrics take the care here for me, in a close race.
While I’m sure there’s plenty more that I could say about this album, you don’t want to read that, so I’ll keep it concise. The Stranger is today’s album, making the stop on our journey New York City. I’m biased and I love this record, but I really hope that you have a good time and enjoy it too.
Billy Joel does NOT suck, so shut up you haters. Here’s a link:
Benny the Jet, Movin’ Out, and heading across the river for tomorrow’s album.