Album Deep Focus: “The Stranger” - Billy Joel
There are albums people return to every once in a while. Then there are albums they can play every day. Billy Joel’s quintessential 1977 album “The Stranger” is one of them.
In his illustrious musical career, the 73-year-old Joel has released numerous classics that he continues to perform to this day. Hits from “The Stranger” are some of the top songs in his setlists.
At the time, “The Stranger” was Columbia Records’ best-selling album, spending six weeks at No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard 200.
Joel starts the album off with a bang with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” The song follows working-class characters trying to find success and riches in life. Joel questions whether the grind is really worth it, singing “it seems such a waste of time / if that’s what it’s all about / Mama if that’s movin’ up, then I’m movin’ out.” In the end, the sound of a car starting and driving away leads listeners to believe he’s made his decision.
The second track on the album is the titular track, and it begins with a haunting whistle. In “The Stranger,” Joel explores the depths of starting and maintaining a relationship, knowing your significant other, but most importantly, knowing yourself.
“Just the Way You Are” is a smooth, saxophone-filled love song. The third track on the album has a fusion vibe, with a rhythm that can make one fall in love.
While 1973’s “Piano Man” is the song most commonly associated with Joel, the fourth track on “The Stranger,” “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” is arguably his masterpiece.
The ballad is the longest in Joel’s discography at just under 8 minutes and is basically split into multiple songs. Joel’s legendary piano playing shines through in this classic, which shares the story of old friends meeting and catching up, sharing a bottle of wine (red or white?) before chronicling the relationship between high school sweethearts Brenda and Eddie.
The dramatic changes in mood are at an all-time high in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” which features smooth, calming saxophones and exhilarating accordions, flutes, tubas and clarinets. Joel’s lyricism and storytelling are incredible, and there are just too many memorable lines to quote.
The fifth track on the album is the beloved “Vienna.” This piece displays Joel’s beautiful ability to project dreams and youthfulness. The song's main theme, one that appears throughout the album, is the theme of patience. Joel explains that there is no need to be in a rush, warning the listener: “you better cool it off before you burn it out.” “Vienna” is the future, and it’ll “wait for you.”
“Only the Good Die Young” is the sixth track, and it’s a familiar fan favorite. Joel highlights the “good girl” narrative, questioning the entire religious (Catholic to be exact) foundation. He sings “sooner or later it comes down to fate / I might as well be the one,” trying to get a devout girl to give him a chance, take some risks, and have some fun. The song was banned on many radio stations upon release due to its subject matter, leading to even more publicity.
Following “Only the Good Die Young” is the much softer love song “She’s Always a Woman.” Like “Just The Way You Are,” Joel wrote the song for his then-wife and manager Elizabeth Weber. He expresses how he feels about her, ignoring her flaws, or what other people think of as flaws. He tells the listener “she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be / blame it all on yourself cause she’s always a woman to me.” Joel’s humming and a soft flute lead the song to the right place.
The tracks “Get It Right the First Time” and “Everybody Has a Dream” wrap up the album. The former is a groovy, upbeat song about bettering himself and making up for his mistakes. The latter is a thoughtful outro gathering the theme of love and dreams which make up the album.
Both songs are good in their own right, but the first seven tracks are possibly the best sequential run in an album ever.
This is my favorite album of all time, with just one hit after another. While he had hits before and continued to make hits through the ‘80s and ‘90s, this is him at his recording peak, and he followed it up in 1978 with another solid album “52nd Street.”
Billy Joel is older now but still performs with that same energy that has solidified him as one of the greatest entertainers ever. I’ve seen him in concert when I was in middle school, and I’d still want to see him again.
When offering wine in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, Joel graciously sings “whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight,” and I am always in the mood for this album.
Reviewer’s Favorite Songs: “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”
Reviewer’s Least Favorite Song: “Everybody Has a Dream”
Nick LaRosa is a third-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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