Saturday, September 14, 2013

Despite The Musical Diversity, Piano Man Does Not Quite Land.

The Good: Some wonderful lyrics, Good vocals
The Bad: Short, Musically incongruent.
The Basics: Billy Joel’s classic album Piano Man is hardly as memorable as the title track, though it does showcase much of Billy Joel’s potential.

As I find myself listening to more and more Billy Joel as I explore his works as part of my Artist Of The Month endeavor, I have been more and more impressed with the risk Columbia took on the artist. Billy Joel, like several musical artists who have made it big, was defined by a wide number of singles. In fact, Billy Joel has had a staggering number of hit songs over the course of his career. But going back to early albums like Piano Man, it is hard to see how his career endured long enough to make him a success. Most of his early albums, like Piano Man, make it easy to peg Billy Joel as a “One Hit Wonder.” While I’ve heard “Captain Jack” on Billy Joel’s compilation albums and “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid” on something animated (I’m thinking Family Guy for some reason), Piano Man has “Piano Man” and little else.

In fact, the first strains of “Travelin’ Prayer,” which opens Piano Man insinuates to the listener that the album they are about to listen to will be a mess. In fact, Joel attempts on Piano Man what many musical artists attempt but few pull off; he puts out an album with a wide range of musically diverse songs. That approach seldom works – Sophie B. Hawkins’s Timbre (reviewed here!) and Heather Nova’s South (reviewed here!) are the only two albums that come instantly to mind as “working” as albums with each song being a different musical style/sound. Joel does not quite land it with Piano Man.

Musically, the songs feature a more orchestral sound than a simpleton might assume from a piano man. But many of the songs do not quite jive, even internally. “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid,” for example, starts sounding virtually identically to a Bee-Gee’s ballad before becoming a piano-based pop song with Country music lyrics. Coming on the heels of the soft rock “You’re My Home” and in advance of the droning “Worse Comes To Worst,” the album sounds deeply fractured as opposed to an exploration of a delightful number of sounds and styles over the course of the entire musical experience.

With only ten tracks, clocking out at 43:33, Piano Man is short, though it is a good representation of Billy Joel’s talents. All of the songs were written and performed by Billy Joel, with Joel providing the primary vocals and pianos on all tracks. The album was produced by Michael Stewart, but otherwise, Joel seems to have the creative control that would make him a musical star.

Vocally, Billy Joel is clear and crisp, accenting each word. For sure, lyrically the album Piano Man is essentially monotonous – almost every song is a musical storysong – but vocally, Billy Joel shows fair range. On the title track to Piano Man, Joel holds notes long and his voice lilts through the story. He goes lower on “Worse Comes To Worst” and performs the song’s lines largely with a staccato sense of enunciation that makes every word painfully clear.

Lyrically, Piano Man is defined by songs that are observational storysongs or outright histories (in the case of “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid”). The classic song “Piano Man,” for example, memorably opens with the semi-autobiographical retelling of a night at a lounge where “There's an old man sitting next to me / Making love to his tonic and gin / He says, ‘Son can you play me a memory / I'm not really sure how it goes / But it's sad and it's sweet / And I knew it complete / When I wore a younger man's clothes.’" The song is perhaps the defining Billy Joel storysong and it is a tough act to follow; none of the eight songs that do follow it quite measure up, though some are good.

In fact, perhaps the most compelling song outside “Piano Man” on the album is “Stop In Nevada,” which sounds unlike anything else I have yet heard from Billy Joel. “Stop In Nevada” tells the story of a couple on the rocks where the woman wants more than she is getting from the marriage. Joel poetically observes “She tried for years to be a good wife / It never quite got off the ground / And all those stories of the good life / Convinced her not to hang around” (“Stop In Nevada”) and helps create a musically viable female protagonist in a way that he seldom attempts on other albums.

Despite claiming not to be a liberal publicly, Billy Joel creates an interesting atmosphere in some of his Piano Man songs in that he combines affluence and poverty in the same song. He sings of being a rambling man who is privileged enough to be in Paris, though he might not quite have enough money to pay the bills. His protagonist celebrates with impending dread with lines like “Well, you know I love my woman / And I would not let her down / And I did my share of lovin' / When I used to get around / Now I'm satisfied that she is lookin' fine / But you pay for your satisfaction / Somewhere along the line” (“Somewhere Along The Line”). Regardless of the musical inconsistencies, Joel is a gifted poet and storyteller on Piano Man.

Still, the best work here is on the compilations and Piano Man sounds more like a collection of b-sides (outside the title track) than it sounds like a cohesive album. The best track is “Piano Man,” the low point is the incredibly repetitive “Ain’t No Crime.”

For other Billy Joel reviews, please check out:
52nd Street
Glass Houses
The Nylon Curtain
An Innocent Man
Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II
River Of Dreams


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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