Just the Way You Are
The Complete Albums Collection
Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 2012 edition (number: 70)
Much like Neil Diamond, Billy Joel exists in the hinterland between artistic credibility and commercial success. Beloved of millions of faithful fans he nevertheless always just misses out on the acceptance of many of his peers and the snobbier end of the critical axis. The clues to why this may can be found here, on what most fans and critics regard as his defining moment, The Stranger.
Following a three year exile in the sun-bleached la-la land of the West Coast, Joel, by 1975, returned to his native New York and with this album's predecessor, Turnstiles, celebrated his delight at going home and unlocked his creative juices. But there was one final piece of the jigsaw missing. The real turning point was Joel's label teaming him up with a top drawer producer in 1977: In this case it was Phil Ramone who'd already struck Grammy gold with Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years. Ramone gave Joel's work room to breath. Now re-mastered (by Ramone himself, and accompanied by a bonus live disc and DVD) it still sounds wonderfully peppy.
It's interesting to note that, after this, Ramone also went on to work with artists who tended towards the 'easy' end of the market, like The Carpenters and Barry Manilow. Joel himself was always uneasy with the piano ballad image that he'd won (not helped by Barry White's mawkish cover of Just The Way You Are). Not poster-boy-good-looking enough to match the blue collar stylings of Bruce Springsteen (with whom he shared many influential touchpoints), and not as intrinsically lovable as Elton John, there's always been an edge to Joel's work that belies his inner demons. This edge makes The Stranger - on the surface an upbeat collection of pop finery and introspective beauty - into a more complex album than you'd assume.
It was almost a concept album about his love affair with a bygone New York. But whereas a song like the township jive of Only The Good Die Young (where a catholic girl's unwillingness to taste life is criticised by the local hoodlum on the block) may initially seem like harmless nostalgia, songs like Scenes From An Italian restaurant or Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) revolve around the theme of the urban versus the suburban: The time when the inner city hosted communities. Added to this there's the faintly sinister edge to both his view of the opposite sex (She's Always A Woman; essentially Joel emulating Dylan) and his own inner life (the title track). Ultimately The Stranger, like its cover, portrays a lonely man being brutally honest with himself. And despite the plaudits (Just The Way You Are won that year's Grammy for best song) and subsequent chart riches (four hit singles and assured stardom), it's a trait which marks his best work to this day. After 30 years, though, The Stranger is the place to acquaint yourself with the true soul of Billy Joel.