Billy Joel’s not-so-silly love songsWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Valentine’s Day is the only “holiday” that surpasses Christmas as a source for music. Love songs make up 95 percent of all songs ever written; there is no more common theme in music and poetry.
With the romantic mood in mind, Sony Legacy has released a collection of Billy Joel’s love songs, which offers an opportunity to revisit one of American pop music’s most successful singer-songwriters.
Joel’s career arc ran contrary to that of his peers. While musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Sting started out with rock records and mellowed into more melodic pop as they aged, Joel started with relatively softer fare but evolved into more rhythm-oriented rock as he progressed. “She’s Got a Way: Love Songs” samples a small slice of Joel’s oeuvre; it includes some of the most famous love songs of the past half-century and reintroduces some overlooked gems.
The collection spans 18 songs drawn from nearly a dozen of Joel’s albums, from 1971’s “Cold Spring Harbor” to 1997’s “Greatest Hits Volume III.” The compilation is credited to Vic Anesini, who choose a mix of comfortable classics and insightful album tracks.
The collection begins on an odd note with “Travelin’ Prayer,” a track from 1973’s “Piano Man” album. The song may have charted on the lower reaches of the pop charts but it is a discordant way to open an anthology of ballads and love songs. The skipping drums, jumpy bass and up-tempo production are a jarring introduction to what is an otherwise intelligent and carefully ordered song list.
“She’s Got A Way: Love Songs” contains a number of recordings that deserve to be freed from the numbing gauze wrapped around them by decades of constant airplay.
“Just The Way You Are,” the 1978 Grammy winner for Record and Song of the Year, is an easy target for lounge singers and detractors, but Phil Ramone’s tasteful production, its wordless chorus running underneath an earnest vocal and Phil Woods’ saxophone solo belie the decades and deserve discovery with fresh ears.
The other perpetually played inclusion, “Honesty,” from 1978’s “52nd Street,” symbolizes one of Joel’s sharpest weapons as a composer: cynicism. Joel can’t rival such master cynics as Elvis Costello or Leonard Cohen, but neither of those artists were able reach a fraction of Joel’s audience. A harsh and lonely song, “Honesty” withholds solace and revels in disappointment. With sentiments such as “If you look for truthfulness/You might just as well be blind” and “I don’t want some pretty face to tell me pretty lies,” the song is a cold but veracious choice for a collection of songs celebrating love.
That weary New York cynicism weaves through several of Joel’s songs. The collection backs his own claim that while critics often connect him to Paul McCartney, he bears a closer kinship to Elton John. Such arms-length songs as 1982’s “She’s Right on Time” (“Left to my own device/I can always make believe/That there’s nothing wrong”), 1986’s “Temptation” (“But I might find salvation/if I can tear myself away”) and 1989’s “State of Grace” (“Both of us know we’re in love/But that isn’t always enough”) inject reality and a practical awareness into what could be a saccharine enterprise.
Other worthy inclusions include “This Is The Time,” “She’s Always A Woman” and “Shameless.”
Among the few filler cuts (the 1971 instrumental “Nocturne,” and “You’re My Home,” which is an introspective and vulnerable vocal on the 1981 live album “Songs in the Attic” but is included here as the listless, unfocused studio performance from 1973’s “Piano Man”) and the clunky remix of 1993’s “All About Soul” are four of Joel’s greatest achievements as a songwriter and performer.
“The Night Is Still Young,” “Until the Night,” “An Innocent Man” and “And So It Goes” are adult, sophisticated compositions with polished studio craftsmanship that represent a collective zenith for Joel’s deep body of work.
“The Night Is Still Young,” a cut included on 1985’s “Greatest Hits Volume I & II,” slipped into the Top 40 at the height of the one-hit wonder synth-band era. Featuring two layered vocals, one deeper representing the man “old enough to say I got a good look at the other side” and one higher for the man “young enough to still see the passionate boy that I used to be,” the song’s narrative follows life’s trajectory from “Rock and roll music was the only thing I ever gave a damn about” to “I’d like to settle down, get married and maybe have a child someday.” It’s a slow-building, slow-burning recording that stands with anything on that greatest hits collection.
“Until the Night,” a track from “52nd Street,” the 1979 Grammy winner for Album of the Year, was far too long at 6:36 to be a single, but serves as an emotional high point of that collection. Another song soaked in relationship doubt (“Now you’re afraid that we have changed/And I’m afraid we’re getting older”) but utilizing equal amounts of wisdom (“I’ll have my fears like every man/You’ll have your tears like every woman”) and optimism (“I’m just beginning to feel/I’m just beginning to give”), “Until The Night” is Joel at the top of his form.
Even that vaunted track is topped by the title track from 1983’s “An Innocent Man.” Backed by restrained piano, baion bass and finger snaps, Joel’s tender but tough vocal winds through a patient outreach (“I’m not above being cool for a while/If you’re cruel to me I’ll understand”) to a sympathetic damaged lover. On equal footing is “And So It Goes,” the coda from 1989’s “Storm Front” that closes the love songs collection. A stark and aching vocal sparsely adorns a lyric as sad and moving as Joel ever composed. “Every time I’ve held a rose/it seems I only felt the thorns,” Joel intones, followed by such dreadful thoughts as “And so it goes, and so it goes/And so will you soon I suppose” and a line that lives as one of pop music’s greatest encapsulations of the loving male’s simultaneous power and helplessness: “So I would choose to be with you/That’s if the choice were mine to make.” It is inconceivable that either “An Innocent Man” or “And So It Goes” would find a place on modern radio (“And So It Goes” made the Top 40 and “An Innocent Man” actually made the Top 10), but that illustrates the weakened state of the art today, not any languor in the recordings.
There are enough overlooked love songs in Joel’s catalog to fill a box set, but there are a few that would have greatly strengthened this collection. “Last of the Big Time Spenders,” “Baby Grand,” “A Matter of Trust,” “Vienna,” “The Longest Time,” “To Make You Feel My Love” and “Rosalinda’s Eyes” leap immediately to mind.
But “She’s Got A Way: Love Songs” is a thoughtful and worthy compilation for Billy Joel fans looking to reacquaint themselves with the artist and those seeking a Valentine’s Day soundtrack offering a true representation of love’s identity: a blend of cynicism, optimism, strength, vulnerability, pride and shamelessness.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.