Billy Joel – The Stranger (1977): Sooner or later, it comes down to fate

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of 5)

With Turnstiles, Billy Joel experienced a creative breakthrough. One album later, with The Stranger, he experienced a commercial breakthrough to match it. Peaking at #2 and ultimately going 10× platinum, his 1977 smash catapulted him to stardom he’s maintained for 35 years.

From the first listen, it’s not hard to see why. Teamed with mega-producer Phil Ramone and backed by the same band that made Turnstiles a rousing success, Joel assembled some of his most accessible and memorable hits, as well as fantastic non-singles.

Yet the brilliant melodies and pristine production couldn’t hide that Joel still ached. The album explores his various identities and reflects on his terror of growing old and irrelevant and impotent. Even his most irreverently funny moments (Only the Good Die Young) mask his discomfort of aging.

Joel’s obsession with aging, with making sense of an uncertain future, is obvious from the first lines of the album (“…saving his pennies for some day”). Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song), the opening number, was one of the album’s big hits. It’s one of Joel’s great songs. The protagonist of the song sees the broken people around him and wonders if he’s any different, before rejecting it all and leaving for something different (if not better). Movin’ Out also features a fantastic melody and some inspired musical moments, like the infamous “ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” that sounds as much like a sputtering engine as a song refrain.

The song is autobiographical, and Joel projects heroism onto himself for refusing to live a conventional lifestyle. Yet the cracks in his confidence shine clear throughout the album: In the closing tracks, Joel expresses impatience at not breaking through (Get it Right the First Team) and a weariness in his rogue journey (the beautiful Everybody Has a Dream).

Elsewhere, Joel tracks his aging process and wonders where it all leads. Vienna and Scenes From an Italian Restaurant are the two best songs on the album — and perhaps the two best songs he ever wrote. The pair are Yin and Yang — one is a minimalist ballad, the other a busy showstopper; one is a concise reflection, the other a panorama; one is about gracefully fading into old age, the other about squandering youth. What they have in common are tremendous melodies, provocative lyrics, cultish fan adoration, and a notable absence from Billboard.

Scenes From an Italian Restaurant is particularly notable, musically. The ambitious suite is composed of incomplete songs of half-ideas. All together, they tell a complete story. The song shows three different ways of looking at lost adolescence. Joel asks a lot of his band here, and they deliver; the sound of the song is colorful and sweeping.

But as much as I love Scenes, the song I keep coming back to is Vienna. It’s a simple song with one fantastic line after another. Joel wrote it after visiting Vienna, Austria and seeing an old man sweeping the street. It got Joel thinking about growing old, and he found something beautiful in the way the old man still had value to the world. In the song, Joel chides an over-anxious, ambitious youth — pretty clearly himself — for not recognizing that a long and peaceful future awaits him. It will come, Joel says, whether or not he accomplishes every last dream in his head.

Though tinged with sadness, Vienna is ultimately an optimistic song, something rare in Joel’s discography. That’s just one reason of many I consider it my favorite song of all time.

Nearly as great as those two gems are the most famous singles on the album: Just the Way You Are, Only the Good Die Young, and She’s Always a Woman.

She’s Always a Woman and Just the Way You Are both address anonymous women. The former is openly scornful, almost misogynistic, in spite of the narrator’s obvious attraction to the woman. It’s a biting and funny song with an all-time great opening line that serves as a good summary for the rest of the lyrics: “She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes.”

Just the Way You Are, on the other hand, is very romantic on the surface. (Full disclosure: It was my parents’ wedding reception first dance.) Many of the lines are very sweet: “I said I love you, and that’s forever” — “What will it take ’til you believe in me the way that I believe in you” — etc.

But I would argue that the central premise of the song — Joel begging his lover to stay exactly the same, to love him the same way she does right now forever — is a very sad and desperate one, misogynistic in its own little way.

Both are great ballads, but She’s Always a Woman has aged a bit better because Just the Way You Are’s texture is too saccharine. The lush background strings and synths eventually grate in spite of the song’s killer melodies and heart-tugging lyrics.

I can’t deny the song’s greatness, though. The way the Joel pulls back just a bit before singing “…the way that I believe in you” makes even this straight male swoon.

The album’s most notorious song is Only the Good Die Young. Joel woos an innocent Catholic schoolgirl — brilliantly given the name Virginia (look at the first six letters) — and tempts her to join his “dangerous crowd”  and stop “waiting” to “start.” It took me until high school to realize exactly what it was he wanted her to start doing.

Joel courted plenty of controversy for the song. There’s a sexual thrust to the song, but it’s hard not to think the whole mess is because he put the word “Catholic” in the first line. There are plentyof “pro-lust” songs out there (to cop Joel’s description of the song), but directly denouncing Catholicism’s sexual politics was a sure way to make headlines. I have no doubt that was his exact intention.

Thirty-five years later, the controversy has largely faded. The song is now discovered and remembered for its unstoppable melody, fantastic production, and memorable one-liners: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” and “That stained glass curtain you’re hiding behind never lets in the sun” are my favorites.

Much like the rest of the songs on the album, Only the Good Die Young is driven by Joel’s reflection on his growing age and his place in the world respective to that; if Joel wasn’t approaching 30, his thrill at soiling an innocent flower wouldn’t be so creepy (or even possible).

Only the Good Die Young receives a spiritual partner of sorts in the title track, where Joel acknowledges the dark, insatiable beast that lurks behind his suave exterior and drives his lust. The Stranger is a fan favorite song, rich and poetic. But Joel’s lofty abstractions and metaphors rarely work as well as his specific, biting stories. It’s true here, too, that Joel reach surpasses his grasp. The title track provides a nice change of pace but doesn’t quite match the peaks of the rest of the album.

There’s a general critical consensus that The Stranger is Joel’s best studio album. Glass Houses has gained some steam after prominent praise by writers like Chuck Klosterman and Stephen Thomas Erlewine. I’m not going to dispute either one; I love them both whole-heartedly, and my preference varies with my mood.

Whether it’s his best album or not, The Stranger is an incredible success on virtually every level. It improved Joel’s fortune and found him at a creative peak, able to depict his complex inner monologue in numerous ways, each as effective as the last. The melodies and production are almost entirely first-rate. It put Joel on the map — changed his career — changed his music — changed his life. Every album he’d ever release afterwards would be colored in some way by The Stranger, and that’s what makes it the definitive Billy Joel record.

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