The Stranger – Billy Joel, 1977
I’ll admit that as an 80’s baby, I got to know Billy Joel primarily through his compilation of “Greatest Hits”, rather than individual albums. I didn’t miss much off of The Stranger, however, because 6 of its 8 songs are considered “greatest hits”. Still, when I had the chance to pick up the brilliant LP secondhand, I didn’t think twice. I’ve been surprised how listening to a smaller collection of songs from a prolific artist can be a good limitation; I find myself seeing connections between the songs and listening more intently to the less-loved tracks.
(Quick tangent: how hard is it to shorten this man’s name? I simply cannot refer to him either by his first or last name, and certainly not his initials!)
I’ve had this record for probably 4 years, but for whatever reason, The Stranger has made it on to the regular vinyl rotation, along with Piano Man, this past month. Today I had my breakfast to Side A, and did some dishes to Side B, and now it’s back on as I write some thoughts out.
The Stranger is as much a collection of stories as it is one of songs, because Billy Joel is as much of a storyteller as he is a songwriter. Appropriately the album begins with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, a story of working class New Yorkers spending their lives making money to move up in class, but having no time or life left to enjoy.
The title track comes next, and ties together the slightly creepy image on the record cover with lyrics like, “they’re the faces of the stranger, but we’d love to try them on,” and “did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?” The song is bookended by a slower, melancholy melody, both whistled and played on the piano. I think we are being invited to imagine the truths and secrets of the characters we meet on the album, who, although they can be familiar, are perpetual strangers, much like most of our interactions with others.
Even if you have never heard Billy Joel’s name before, it is certain that you’ve heard “Just the Way You Are” at approximately 74% of weddings you have attended, being the classic, earnest, and well-written love song that it is. Phil Woods’ sexy saxophone solo also doesn’t hurt. I doubt that Bruno Mars will get half as much play as this does 30 years from now. Yet, at the moment, its placement on the record following “The Stranger” is causing me to call its sincerity into question. If anything, I love “Just the Way You Are” that much more.
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” would have been reason alone to buy this LP. This is such a great song – probably my favorite Billy Joel song of all. Three “scenes” are painted for us, beginning and ending in the same place: our Italian restaurant. The longest section known as the ballad of Brenda and Eddie was originally written as its own track, before being inserted into this epic piece that speaks of young love, old familiarities, and common cycles of love and life. The whole piece is speckled with soulful sax lines and playful clarinet solos that punctuate a piece of music that is constantly driven by a forceful rhythm section. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” works for me on the level of a Symphony, where I am listening for what connects these movements to one another, while at the same time, trying to appreciate them individually.
I can often digest the first side of this record on its own, nearly as an album in and of itself, simply because of the feeling of completion that “Scenes” brings. Sometimes that’s how I feel the album should end – with the storyteller sitting at that familiar table at the Italian Restaurant, waiting to see if he would be joined by his old flame.
But, this is not the end of the album, and the record’s Side-B takes turns playing sweeter ballads (ie. “Vienna”), and foot-stomping, rock-and-roll tunes (ie. “Only the Good Die Young”). I can’t help but notice that the side begins with a song about not waiting passively for your dreams to come true, but that they (embodied by Vienna) are waiting for you to come find them, and it ends with a MLK inspired gospel tune, repeating that “Everybody Has a Dream”. Side-B is perhaps revealing a more positive aspect of The Stranger. We might be lying, cheating, sneaking, beasts, but whatever our mask may be, and no matter how well we know someone, there is more to a person than we think.
Billy Joel rounds out the philosophy of “Vienna”, with the practical theology of “Only the Good Die Young”; live life now, because nothing is certain about whatever comes next. In this song he also offers one of the best tunes for doing any kind of chores to, because it’s both danceable and sing-along-able. However, seeing as life is short, I don’t really want to do the dishes…
Good thing I love to sing-along to “She’s Always a Woman to Me” as well, or I wouldn’t know what to do with the dramatic shift in pace. I remember thinking at a very young age, that it was a stupid song. Is he worried that she’s going to instantaneously become a man? or a toad? However, eventually I gave the song another chance, and found it to be one of my favorite Billy Joel songs. In this love song to his wife at the time, He affirms that her woman-hood does not stem from particular “lady-like” or feminine qualities, but the fact that she is indeed, a woman. An independent one at that, and he loves her. Well, loved… he divorced that particular wife in 1982. Don’t think about that though.
The album ends with two songs not considered “greatest hits”, but although they were never singles, are still great songs in the context of The Stranger, showing how deep the well of Billy Joel’s talent for song-writing really is. “Get it Right the First Time” is a blast – it’s nearly as fun as “Only the Good Die Young” to do dishes to. And “Everybody Has a Dream” shows off Joel’s gospel chops, which organs, and choirs, and vocal ad lib (oh my!), before closing the album with a reprise of “The Stranger” motif on whistling lips and piano. Which of course, just makes me want to start the whole album again, but I’m not sure my housemates feel the same way. 😉