Greatest Hits, Volume I & Volume II
Billy Joel gets a bum rap from a lot of critics, and I'm not sure why. Is it his tunes? No, they're always catchy and usually quite graceful. His singing? No, his voice is pleasant and expressive. His piano playing? No, he's quite agile on the keys. His band? No, they're talented and carry off his arrangements well.
So that leaves…his lyrics? I guess so. I'm not sure why. They're thoughtful, always move the story forward, use interesting rhymes, and rarely does one find any obvious clinkers (exception: "We had no soft soap" in "Goodnight Saigon" - well, neither did anybody else in 1968; it hit the market in the early 80's).
It must be the attitude, then. One definitely gets the sense that Billy thinks he's better than you. But, then again, he is - at least in terms of talent, success, wealth, and popularity (good looks and moral grace I'll leave to other critics). If we're going to praise gangsta rap for keeping it real and showing us life in the streets, why can't we have a Billy Joel bringing us life in the Hamptons?
And, I must say, Billy's lyrics are really well-written slabs of superior attitude. "Just the Way You Are" is a chauvinist keep-the-woman-in-her-place diatribe disguised as a serenade by the gently arcing melody and the unctuous saxophone, but it's a convincing chauvinist keep-the-woman-in-her-place diatribe. Unlike most of the misogynist rants coming from your average metal or punk band, which actually just sound like the ravings of desperately lonely guys, you really get the sense that Billy doesn't think his lover can better herself.
"Only the Good Die Young" may be an insultingly anti-Catholic diatribe, but it's a well-reasoned insultingly anti-Catholic diatribe; unlike your average religion baiter who still brings up the Inquisition or some other irrelevant historical atrocity, Joel takes on current Catholic values and explicitly rejects them. If you've got to put someone down, this is the way to do it.
And what's more, there are a lot of times when he actually does show some human feeling. "Allentown" is one of the best songs of the twentieth century - nowhere in the lyric or melody does he falter, except in the modulation behind "they threw an American flag in our face" (should have left off "American" and it would have been smooth). Has there ever been a more evocative song about the collapse of the American dream during hard times? On the flip side of that idea, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" captures, without the condescension one might expect, the hopes and failures of young people still working out their place in society; coupled with the bel canto melody of the intro, it really puts me back in my grandfather's house growing up.
So let me say it: Billy Joel deserves his big head. He may be a stuck-up prig, but he sure can write those songs.
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