I always had a complicated relationship with Billy Joel’s love songs. As worldly wise and street tough as his albums, in particular early on, could no doubt be, something seemed to go wrong when he tried to talk about girls.
Now, I had no quibble with Joel’s other ballads, and I loved his saloon songs. The Stranger would be infinitely poorer, for instance, if “Vienna” didn’t arrive between “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Only the Good Die Young.” There, though, Joel’s observational skills were sharper, and his playing, it seemed, wittier.
Needless to say, I approached Columbia Legacy’s new 79-minute compilation of them, called She’s Got a Way: Love Songs and due January 22, 2013, with no small amount of dread.
I hadn’t been a regular consumer of the retired Joel for some time, and it had been longer still since I’d examined tracks like “Just the Way You Are” and “She’s Always a Woman.” With both, celebrated though they may have been back in 1977, it’s as if Joel was a bit too cool to admit anything about love. Dig deeper, and all you find are a series of searing, backhanded compliments.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 1976’s “Prelude/Angry Young Man” illustrates everything that once made Billy Joel great – biting cynicism, complex song structure, and chops most rock guys can only dream of.]
Even so, elsewhere She’s Got a Way has a way of illuminating new corners in Joel’s legacy. Listening, I guess I had painted all of his love songs with the same brush. This project, in fact, offers a smart mix of rarities and deep cuts sprinkled around expected hits like those, 1993’s “All About Soul,” 1989’s “And So It Goes,” 1986’s “This is the Time” and 1978’s “Honesty.” And it’s in those places, rather than within more familiar moments like “Honesty,” where this forthcoming compilation earns its keep — though I must say, the former certainly stretches the idea of a “love” song to its limit; if anything, Joel seems to have completely had it with such pursuits.
Working well away from the hits, I guess I fell in love with Billy Joel again. It had been forever — too long, I realize now — since I’d put on my vinyl copy of 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor for a spin through the shatteringly beautiful “Nocturne.” I can’t remember the last time I revisited the locomotive “Travelin’ Prayer” from 1973’s Piano Man, or the layered complexity of “She’s Right on Time” from 1982’s Nylon Curtain, either. They made the more obvious conceits here come alive, and the wrong-headed ones more palatable.
Elsewhere, I thrilled to the all-but-forgotten “You’re My Home,” a loping country-fried b-side from the “Piano Man” single in 1973, and listened with fresh attention to Joel’s starkly confessional “Temptation” from The Bridge in 1986. (Time for my own confession: I skipped past “State of Grace” and the Garth Brooks vehicle “Shameless,” not wanting to break the reverie.) Within this new context, even warhorses like the title track of 1983’s An Innocent Man, and 1985’s greatest-hits add-on “The Night is Still Young” held new-found meaning, as Joel began slowly turning his knife-edged criticisms inward. Older in life, and in love, I heard new things.
Of course, She’s Got a Way: Love Songs still can’t match the clinched, visceral power of tracks like “Captain Jack,” “Big Shot” and, of course “Angry Young Man.” But as we enter our third decade without new pop music from Billy Joel, this set’s small revelations, sadly, are apparently all we have left. In that way, I welcomed them.
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