Album Review: Billy Joel, “The Stranger”

by Christian Bonavita

By 1977, Billy Joel was far from a superstar.  Although he had already released four albums, they all performed disappointingly, both commercially and critically.  All four of his previous works spawned one or two moderately successful singles, but they all the lacked depth and quality reminiscent of truly great albums.

All of Joel’s shortcomings, however, ended with The Stranger.  A major stylistic change from slower, emptier songs to music with more life and a more complicated production was the key to garnering major commercial success.  At the same time, though, Billy Joel’s storytelling shines through over the upbeat pop-rock guitar and piano riffs.  Every song tells a different story, and not a single story is worth skipping on this album.

The album starts with a bang as the audience is hit with the signature electric guitar melody of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”.  By the first chorus, Joel’s piano is evident, swelling over the guitar and drum rhythm.  He sings of his disgust with the idea that the most important thing in life is working long hours to “move up” in life, but over one of the most infectious melodies on the album, it is easy for the audience to forget about the lyrics and enjoy the song solely for the way it sounds.  Today one of Billy Joel’s most famous songs and lasting hits, “Movin’ Out” set the bar high for the rest of the album.

The first minute of the second track, “The Stranger”, has listeners thinking that the album is in for an early transition to slower, more piano-driven songs.  The ominous whistling and piano melody set up what seems like a solemn and slow song, but after a short pause, the band begins, revealing a drum-driven rock song about the suspicious facades and personalities people have to hide their true selves.  Although this song is not considered one of Billy Joel’s greats, it functions as a great follow up to “Movin’ Out”.

The next song on the album is one of Billy Joel’s most endearing love songs.  “Just the Way You Are”, was an instant classic for Joel, winning the Grammy Award for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1979, his first two Grammys.  It is obvious that this song, the most successful off the album, has since influence many modern love songs; the idea of telling the one you love not to change and to stay the way they are has been replicated many time.  “Just the Way You Are” epitomizes the perfect love song, with its simplistic vocal melody and deeply affectionate lyrics.  To top it off, the saxophone solos featured on this track are some of the best Billy has had in one of his songs.

The next track is often considered one of Joel’s best songs by critics and fans alike. Despite never being released as a single, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” has become a staple on classic rock radio.  The seven-and-a-half-minute song is made of three parts, starting off with an instantly recognizable piano riff and the famous words “Bottle of white, bottle of red,” then speeding up to reveal a story about high school sweethearts who get married, only to divorce, but are meeting again years later.  The song climaxes in a return to the original “bottle of white” melody and the most beloved saxophone solo in Joel’s entire catalog.  The storytelling, saxophone, piano, and Billy Joel’s voice above all make “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” the best song on the album.

The album slows down after “Scenes”, but only for one song.  “Vienna”, the next track on the album, is a ballad about stopping to enjoy life before getting old.  “Vienna” is Billy’s best vocal performance on the album, and his high, clear vocals are complimented by his piano and the unique choice of an accordion.  Following “Vienna” is another Billy Joel classic, “Only the Good Die Young”.  This song is sarcastic and fun, showing Joel taking on the role of a rebellious teenager persuading a girl to go out with him.  His voice rasps as he says the line “Your mother told you all that I could give you is a reputation”.  It’s no surprise that this song has become a classic.

The next song, “She’s Always a Woman”, is a personal favorite of mine.  “She’ll promise you more than the Garden of Eden/Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding,” is just one of the sarcastic lines that epitomizes the song, which features Joel dreamily singing of a woman who he knows is far from perfect, but whom he is hopelessly in love with. Joel’s softhearted tone makes the song verge on being sappy, but it all comes across as being completely authentic.  This makes the song a refreshing, feel-good listen.

The penultimate and last songs of the album were done a disservice by being put on such an otherwise flawless album.  Both of the final songs, “Get it Right the First Time” and “Everybody Has a Dream”, are above average, and would have gained recognition had they been released on one of Joel’s weaker albums.  However, being in such great company, “Get it Right the First Time” is forgettable, and “Everybody Has a Dream”, the weakest song on the album, seems monotonous and ends the album without making its mark.

Overall, The Stranger deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time greatest rock albums.  The Stranger marked a breakthrough in Billy Joel’s career, making him an international superstar and shaping the music he would make for the rest of his career.  Found on this album are live favorites, rock-radio standards, and enough hits for an entire career.  But in 1977, Billy Joel was just getting started.

Album Rating: 9.5/10

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