AT HIS BEST, Billy Joel is known in the music world as a talented keyboard artist who sings moving ballads. Joel got that image with the release of Piano Man, his debut album on Columbia Records, which followed a virtually unknown and very rare release called Cold Spring Harbor. The title track from Piano Man, along with other slow ballads such as "Captain Jack" and the more upbeat "Ballad of Billy the Kid," created the in age for Joel, and he has continued it with songs such as "Miami 2107" and "I've Loved These Days."
Yet in The Stranger, Joel's latest release, the native Long Islander who mentions New York in almost all his songs appears to be telling the world that he can do more than just coast through slow, moving ballads. He already hinted at that hidden diversity on the Turnstiles album with a bluesy tune called "New York State of Mind" and upbeat rockers such as "All You Wanna Do Is Dance" and "Say Goodbye to Hollywood." The last song overflowed with the famous heavy Phil Spector drumbeat that pervaded the rock of the '60s.
The title track on this newest album tells about the hidden side of Billy Joel. As the lyrics suggest:
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They're the faces of the stranger
And we love to try them on
Trying on these new faces is what Joel's new album is all about. From the traditional storyteller to the disco rocker to the gospel vocalist, Joel plays many roles as he experiments with differing styles of music.
Interestingly enough, the four cuts on side one, all of which have received considerable airplay on both the AM and FM dials, are the least innovative songs on the album. They fit neatly into the pattern that Joel has established in his past releases, but their success is still a tribute to the freshness and originality Joel brings to each of his new songs--even the ones that most resemble his familiar ballads.
"Movin' Out" leads off the album with an upbeat rocker that, as the album's first single, did not do well. It is a coarse song that ends with the revving of a motorcycle engine as the music fades away and hardly ranks as one of Joel's best releases. It is balanced out, however, by the blockbuster of the album, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,"
Because of its seven-minute-plus length, this song will probably never break open the AM charts ("Stairway to Heaven" is one of the few songs that ever made the rise to fame despite a more-than-seven-minute duration), but the song stands out as an example of Joel's tremendous talent as a vocalist/instrumentalist/composer. From the slow, ballad-like start to the well-rhythmed second section, to the rapid, light-rock middle of the song, Joel controls all the elements of his music as he reminisces about high-school days. Amidst a superb clarinet melody and the fantastic saxophone that Richie Cannata always adds to Billy Joel's music, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" remains brilliant.
In the popularity polls, though, "Italian Restaurant" cannot match "Just the Way You Are," a sentimental throwback to his earlier "You're My Home." Each time Joel performs the current hit single on stage, he quiets the screams of even the Long Island fanatics who support their hometown hero. In silence, his listeners delight to lyrics such as:
I said I love you and that's forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better