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Billy the kid

Music | Rerelease of The Stranger shows Joel's immaturity

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

Listening to the CDs (one studio, one live), watching the DVD, reading the booklets, and looking at the vintage concert poster contained in Columbia/Legacy's 30th-anniversary edition of Billy Joel's album The Stranger, it's easy to forget that when The Stranger was first released Billy Joel was not a big deal. The attention generated by Piano Man in 1973 had dissipated in the wake of its relatively unsuccessful follow-ups, and, unbeknownst to Joel at the time, Columbia was prepared to drop him.

Then "Just the Way You Are," a love song that Joel might have left off the album if Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt hadn't convinced him of its potential, became a hit. So did "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "Only the Good Die Young," and "She's Always a Woman." The Stranger would eventually sell over 10 million copies, and Billy Joel would go on to several decades of international superstardom.

But if the strongest songs on The Stranger account for Joel's enduring popularity, the weakest account for why he has aged into something like a piano-playing cross between Bruce Springsteen and Harry Chapin.

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Like Springsteen, Joel sometimes wrote and performed with a bravado indicative of not only immaturity but also an unbecoming obliviousness to it. Like Chapin, Joel could be strident in his sentimentality, thus belying the otherwise charming qualities of his songs' various narrators. Snow and Ronstadt's opinion notwithstanding, the singers of "Just the Way You Are" and "She's Always a Woman" are shallow, self-centered, and smug.

Only when he slipped completely into a character other than himself did the sum of his talent seem greater than its parts. That "Only the Good Die Young" still sounds like an excerpt from a rock 'n' roll West Side Story suggests his true environment may not have been the sports-arena stage but Broadway.

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