[30th Anniversary Legacy Edition]
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2008, Volume 15, #7
Written by John Metzger
Tue July 15, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
It isnít easy to take an album that once was wildly popular and provide a fresh framework for appreciating it. This is especially true with a song cycle such as Billy Joelís The Stranger, which not only is well entrenched within in the publicís consciousness but also is tied quite closely to a specific era. There is no doubt that, over the course of the preceding years, Joel had penned quite a few terrific tunes. Too often, though, the albums on which they appeared were marred by poor production choices. On Cold Spring Harbor, for example, his vocals were mastered at the wrong speed, while Streetlife Serenade and, to a lesser degree, Turnstiles felt rushed to fruition. Piano Man had become a radio hit, even if it wasnít a big-selling endeavor, but until he completed The Stranger, he had failed to capitalize on the growth and maturity he had shown as a songwriter.
Songs in the Attic, Joelís perfectly timed concert set from 1981, provided the antidote to the overwhelming commercial success that greeted him after the release of The Stranger. In reworking a series of overlooked gems from his back catalogue, it made the case that Joel was in his prime as a songwriter long before anyone really recognized it. Yet, it also inadvertently puffed up the significance of his early endeavors by making them feel better constructed than they actually were.
In an unusual twist, especially for such a significant overhaul of what is now a neglected artifact, The Stranger: Legacy Edition returns perspective to what arguably is Joelís most finely honed studio set. Better still, it accomplishes its goal not by revising or overemphasizing the history of the outingís genesis, but rather by laying out the facts as they occurred. The package includes a stellar slate of material that was culled from a concert that Joel had performed at Carnegie Hall three months prior to the release of The Stranger. It also features the entirety of his promotional appearance on Britainís Old Grey Whistle Test from the following year. Although there is some redundancy between the two shows and Songs in the Attic, the audio and video footage clearly illustrates that Joel was destined for bigger things. He just needed the right person to assist him on his journey.
A diehard Beatles fan, Joel likely had a difficult time rejecting George Martinís offer to produce The Stranger, but his decision to work with Phil Ramone may have been the smartest move he ever made. The reason for his choice, which is told and retold in the liner notes and interviews that also accompany the latest installment of the Legacy Edition series, was because Martin wanted to employ session musicians on the set, while Ramone planned to have Joel utilize his touring band. Joel had tried the former approach on each of his previous endeavors, but not surprisingly, he never felt as comfortable with the hired hands as he did with his regular collaborators.
In hindsight, itís clear that Ramone understood Joel better than anyone ever has. He knew how to guide Joelís artistic vision as well as how to glean a commercially successful album from him. From the Beatle-esque guitars that chime through Moviní Out (Anthonyís Song) to the Abbey Road-inspired Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, and from the blazing, Little Richard-meets-Paul McCartney insistence of Only the Good Die Young to the echoes of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band that infiltrate nearly all of the interplay between Joel and his outfit, thereís little to The Stranger that the Long Island-born songwriter hadnít attempted at some point in his past. At the same time, though, Ramone found ways of illuminating and amplifying Joelís range as well as the setís thematic flow, while simultaneously remaining sympathetic to the pianistís persona as a performer.
The Stranger is, both musically and lyrically, an evocation of the time frame in which it was created. At first, it seems as if the electric piano-laden hit Just the Way You Are is meant to provide comfort in the wake of the disorienting, R&B-inflected shimmer of the outingís title track. The lyrics to the former tune, however, tell a different tale. In effect, the love-struck optimism of Youíre My Home (from Piano Man) had mutated over the course of the 1970s to become the disillusioned petitioning of someone who was trying to hold a relationship together.
Time and again throughout The Stranger, Joel touches upon themes of alienation and disconnection: Moviní Out (Anthonyís Song) expresses a need to escape; Scenes from an Italian Restaurant fondly recalls the early stages of a relationship that since has collapsed; and Sheís Always a Woman hides pain beneath the knotty sentiments of anger and affection. Yet, the outing also provides a glimmer of hope via the gentle prodding of Get It Right the First Time and the Ray Charles-imbued, gospel-soul hymn Everybody Has a Dream.
The Stranger is, then, a personal but universal reflection upon life, love, and survival in an era where ego and excess collided with gas shortages, unemployment, and rampant inflation. Exiting with the pensive, solitary echo of the title trackís whistled refrain, The Stranger offers no answers, but it does provide companionship to the disenchanted, heartbroken souls whose relationships and livelihoods had come to a crashing conclusion.
Other Legacy Edition Collections
The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Special Edition is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box