The Stranger - 1977
Listening to this album last week was an overwhelming experience. I don't know if that's some kind of cumulative effect of hearing four Billy Joel albums in four days, but I don't think so. I think "The Stranger" is just one of the greatest albums ever, by any artist, and I had forgotten that. Being reminded of it in this context (the chronological album plays and listening with a close ear because I knew I'd be writing a post about it) truly was a little overwhelming.
I'm left with disorganized flashes of thought instead of neat summaries...
- the harmonized saxes in "Movin' Out",
- the piano kicking in at the end of that song reminding me of Layla by Eric Clapton just a little.
- Then "The Stranger" starts and I' m remembering an interview I saw where Billy said the whistling was just a placeholder until they figured out what instrument to put there but they decided to keep the whistle for its haunting quality.
- The lyrics of this song take me back instantly to when I first heard it and I realize that ideas in this song were a part of my maturing process in my twenties, recognizing that many of the people you see every day are just showing you their public mask, and that they (we!) all have "a face that we hide away forever". I got past that in my twenties (as I think many of us do) so what you see is the real me in almost every context now. Billy was 28 when this album came out, so his recognition of this concept is right on the mark for me.
-And how did I forget how awesome the groove is on this song? "The Stranger" is a strong piece of music. I'm listening to this and thinking that I never appreciated how good Doug Stegmeyer really was on the bass. The slap and pop here is subtle, not an easy thing to do, and adds SO much energy.
- Speaking of musicians, that's the incredible jazz saxophonist Phil Woods playing one of the most beautiful sax solos in rock/pop music history on "Just The Way You Are".
This is followed up by "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant", an epic piece clocking in at over seven and a half minutes with not a second of it wasted. Great storytelling, a big tenor sax sound on the solo, a wicked piano solo, a symphonic feel as we change style a few times, not abruptly, but with composed transitions, it all just works so well.
"Vienna" wasn't a favourite of mine early on, but it did become a favourite years later. "Only The Good Die Young" was the song that jumped to the front for me when I first heard the album, and still remains a song I love to this day. "Get It Right The First Time" is another great track, and the album's last song is "Everybody Has A Dream". Although it's my least favourite song on the album, I've got to give Billy credit for putting what amounts to a gospel song on a pop album. After this song ends, we hear a reprise of the opening to "The Stranger". The haunting whistle in E minor fades away to silence.
This album took me a few days to really soak it in, and I did replay a few songs. Give it a listen. Now on to 52nd Street, the first album by Billy Joel that I ever bought.