Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Billy Joel Album From Which So Many Of The Hits Came: An Innocent Man!

The Good: Great vocals, Engaging music, Good lyrics.
The Bad: Short, Repetitive, Outside the hits there are very few worthwhile songs.
The Basics: An Innocent Man might be the archetype for Billy Joel albums, but it lacks a real spark outside the radio hits.

The cool thing about studying a different artist each month is that sometimes one discovers that the greats of the musical world are or are not all they are hyped up to be. So, for example, with Fleetwood Mac, the classic album Tango In The Night (reviewed here!) is wonderful and spawned a number of hits, but unlike Rumours (reviewed here!), there is really nothing to the album beyond the radio hits. Such is the case with the Billy Joel album An Innocent Man. An Innocent Man is what appears to be an amazing album given that it has some of Billy Joel’s most popular and influential songs from the 1980s (“An Innocent Man,” “Uptown Girl,” “Tell Her About It,” and “The Longest Time”). Unfortunately, it has little more to the album other than that.

The rest of the songs on An Innocent Man vary between being repetitive (“Easy Money”) and grating (“Christie Lee”). While there are a few gems on the album, most notably the whimsical “Leave A Tender Moment Alone,” An Innocent Man is largely unmemorable outside of the hits that appear on every major compilation from it. It is not a bad album, but it is short and hardly essential.

With only ten tracks clocking out at 40:02, An Innocent Man is very much the work of Billy Joel. Joel wrote the words and music to all of the songs on An Innocent Man and he provides all of the lead vocals. As well, Billy Joel plays the Baldwin Acoustic Piano, Fender Rhodes, and Hammond B-3 on various songs on the album. The only major creative element that Joel does not take credit for on An Innocent Man is production. Phil Ramone once again produced the album for Billy Joel.

Vocally, An Innocent Man is a diverse album. “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” is slow and articulate, while on “An Innocent Man,” Billy Joel illustrates pretty impressive vocal range. In addition to hitting some real high notes and he holds some of the notes for a decent amount of time. The real sound of An Innocent Man is harmonies. Classics like “Tell Her About It” and “Uptown Girl” redefined – or resurrected – the sound of men harmonizing mostly in a capella form and even now the peppy songs have a freshness to them that is fun and light.

Instrumentally, An Innocent Man is piano-driven, though songs like “Uptown Girl” use the power of the human voice as the main instrument. In addition to the piano, some of the songs feature electric or acoustic guitars. The saxophone is integral to “Christie Lee,” which is all about the power of a saxophone to bed a woman! The songs are almost universally upbeat on An Innocent Man and it helped to define the sound of early 1980s pop music.

Lyrically, An Innocent Man is a good album, though the diction is common and unchallenging, as if Billy Joel wanted a sense of poetics that spoke to the masses. The album is dominated by storysongs filled with characters that interact with the world around them. While “Uptown Girl” might be Joel’s ode to Christie Brinkley, there are some non-autobiographical characters in the songs. Joel sings without any hint that he is the subject of “Christie Lee” when he sings “He was working in a night club / That’s where he played the saxophone / He used to fake to stock arrangements / He left the customers alone.” The storysongs have less universal resonances than, say, “Piano Man.”

Joel does go for the universal on songs like “Tell Her About It.” On that song, Joel just puts forth some straight-out dating philosophy. With lines like “It’s not automatically a certain guarantee / To insure yourself / You’ve got to provide communications constantly / When you love someone / You’re always insecure / And there’s only one good way / To reassure / Tell her about it / Let her know how much you care / When you can’t be with her / Tell her you wish you were there” (“Tell Her About It”) Joel paints picture of himself as the sage and he does so with real style and panache.

Not all the songs hit, though. Songs like “Easy Money” are just painfully repetitive. The title of the song repeats no less than fourteen times in the course of the brief song. It is not the only song that is horribly repetitive, but because it opens the album, it makes for a weaker track.

In the end, An Innocent Man is good, but not the essential classic some fans might want it to be. All of the best songs are widely available on compilation albums. The best song is “The Longest Time,” the low point is the unmemorable “This Night.”

For other Billy Joel reviews, please check out:
52nd Street
Glass Houses
The Nylon Curtain


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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