Old/Newish Albums: Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”

billyjoelWhat an outstanding record. Billy Joel had experienced some success prior to The Stranger, with the albums Piano Man and Turnstiles both making some waves due to their hit singles (the self-titled hit on the former, “N.Y. State Of Mind” on the latter). But The Stranger was a massive hit, securing diamond status in the United States alone (confirmed 10,000,000 records sold).

Even with one listen to this album, it’s not hard to tell why it was such a smash. Song after song, this thing is packed with bonified classics; it’s full of well-written stories about sketches of people you know on top of catchy, indelible melodies.

Think about the context surrounding this album. Released in 1977, when the smack dab middle of the baby boomer generation is hitting their 20s. Billy Joel captures so many really poignant emotional snapshots of what it’s like to be right there. He was in his mid-20s when he wrote the album, and so many of the songs deal with issues and themes we struggle with as we make the uncomfortable transition to adulthood. This album was a success not only because it came at just the right time to strike lightning in the culture, but also because it has a very timeless feel.

As is par with this blog series, I had listened to The Stranger a few times in the past but in my earlier listening, only really focused on “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Vienna.” Both songs are fantastically-written pieces of pop music with great lyrics, great hooks, great melodies, great everything. This time around though, I was struck by the entire album, and especially one specific song, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Front to back, The Stranger is a powerhouse. I’d say its success is due to its relatability. I’ve felt the restlessness of young age (“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Only The Good Die Young”) and the trepidation about growing old (“Vienna”). I’ve felt the fear of missed opportunities (“Get It Right The First Time”) and the dog-eared familiarity of love (“Just The Way You Are”). I can imagine an entire generation of young adults starting to realize how little they know about life getting their hands on this record and hearing every feeling brought to life.

This record isn’t without its faults. I’ve always disliked the song “Only The Good Die Young” and didn’t really get into it this round through The Stranger. It’s about a guy trying to get his pious Catholic girl to sleep with him. Never liked the tune musically but the lyrics just smacked of so much insincerity as they follow the truly gorgeous “Vienna,” which is about not growing up too fast.

Joel also writes very incisively about the fear of letting someone truly know you in “The Stranger.” This song also struck home with me more than it ever had before, not only due to its intense and heady subject matter but due to the fantastic hook that bookends the main part of this song. The whistled melody is kind of the unofficial Theme of The Stranger. It is inexplicably haunting, a gorgeous piano instrumental with the most melancholy melody whistled on top.

But the song that I couldn’t stop listening to is “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” This tune is, in my opinion, the centerpiece and the mini-magnum opus of this album. The song functions basically as a suite with three separate movements. I like to think of it as a non-linear telling of the story of Brenda and Eddie, high school sweethearts who reconnect many years after their romance ends.

Lyrically, this song is nostalgic, heartbreaking, romantic and truthful. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how high school is often portrayed in our culture. While, in reality, high school is a very difficult experience for a lot of people, there are those kids who peak too early, whose best days are their high school years, and Brenda and Eddie are a couple of these kids. High school is their apex; nothing can top their high school romance and they feel invincible and unstoppable. The issue arises when these kids hit the real world with real problems, and their love isn’t actually strong enough to weather what life throws at them and they don’t have their happy ending, at least not initially. This is a song about lost innocence and the realization of how hard life can knock us over as we grow up.

But yet in the midst of that sadness, it’s an incredibly romantic tune that elicits so much nostalgia in me. I like to think that the first and second parts of the song are Brenda and Eddie reconnecting after their short-lived romance, many years later. They’ve both moved on with their lives but are reminiscing about their days together.

Obviously, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. But it’s rare for me to hear a song so uniquely structured that takes me on this much of a time-traveling journey and really makes me feel like I’m a first-hand witness of the rise and fall of this romance. Joel uses the saxophone as the signifying element that he’s taking us to a new time to tell a new part of the story and it took me quite a few listens to realize the transporting effect that it was creating as I listened.

Aside from the beautifully sad story told in this song, the way Joel has put this song together musically is so fantastic. The saxophone-as-time-machine is great, but the way the song moves through the different movements and how they create different environments in which you learn more about Brenda and Eddie is really cool.

The second movement feels very carefree and fun, eliciting the feeling of high school and being in love and feeling like all is good. The energy ramps up even more for the true ballad of Brenda and Eddie, and the frenetic feel matches the speed at which their relationship deteriorates. Joel has chosen every syllable so carefully too, and the cadence of his words flows so effortlessly with the music. Lyrically, the verse about Brenda and Eddie’s apartment and how they’ve chosen to furnish it seems forgettable, but it communicates so much about how unready these two kids are to start a life together. The line about the waterbed is the perfect example of how good a songwriter Billy Joel is, because with so much subtlety is the deepest issue of Brenda and Eddie’s relationship laid bare with a throwaway line about a piece of furniture (which, even more amazingly, was still very much in vogue at the time of this record). But this all culminates with how exactly perfect Joel’s chosen lyrics fit the cadence of the verse. The poetic rhythm of the words just attacks your ears and it amazes me how anyone can write stuff this good.

And finally, the song is bookended by the beautiful movements about the titular Italian restaurant. Something about the “A bottle of red, a bottle of white” line is so devastatingly gorgeous and romantic and it keeps me coming back to this song over and over.

I didn’t know I had so much in me about this one song. It’s just a really well-written tune that has a lot of insightful things to say about the lyrical themes present elsewhere on this record.

I can’t write enough about how great this album is. It’s absolutely one of my favorite albums ever (Top 50) and just hits so many right notes, lyrically and musically. The Stranger is so good, it basically functions as a Billy Joel greatest hits release. I highly recommend it.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
  2. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
  3. The Stranger

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