Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Billy Joel

  • Piano Man [Columbia, 1973] C
  • Streetlife Serenade [Columbia, 1974] C
  • Turnstiles [Columbia, 1976] C+
  • The Stranger [Columbia, 1977] B-
  • 52nd Street [Columbia, 1978] B-
  • Glass Houses [Columbia, 1980] B-
  • The Nylon Curtain [Columbia, 1982] B
  • An Innocent Man [Columbia, 1983] B+
  • Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 and 2 (1973-1985) [Columbia, 1985] A-
  • The Bridge [Columbia, 1986] B
  • Storm Front [Columbia, 1989] B
  • River of Dreams [Columbia, 1993] Dud

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Piano Man [Columbia, 1973]
Joel's Cold Spring Harbor was recorded in the vicinity of 38-rpm to fit all the material on--he's one of these eternal teenagers who doesn't know how to shut up. Stubborn little bastard, too--after his bid stiffed, he worked a Los Angeles cocktail lounge soaking up Experience. Here he poses as the Irving Berlin of narcissistic alienation, puffing up and condescending to the fantasies of fans who spend their lives by the stereo feeling sensitive. And just to remind them who's boss, he hits them with a ballad after the manner of Aaron Copland. C

Streetlife Serenade [Columbia, 1974]
Boy, these piano boys--on "Root Beer Rag" and "The Mexican Connection" Joel abandons Irving Berlin for George Gershwin, or do I mean Roger Williams? Granted, "The Entertainer" is so nasty it's witty--so nasty it may be about Joel himself. But why does it include a Rick Wakeman imitation? C

Turnstiles [Columbia, 1976]
As Joel's craft improves--I can recall four of these songs merely by glancing at titles--he becomes more obnoxious: the anti-idealism of "Angry Young Man" isn't any more appealing in tandem with the pseudoironic sybaritism of "I've Loved These Days." But I do catch myself in moments of identification with the three place-name songs on side one--"Say Goodbye to Hollywood" more than the overrated "New York State of Mind." C+

The Stranger [Columbia, 1977]
Having concealed his egotism in metaphor as a young songpoet, he achieved success when he uncloseted the spoiled brat behind those bulging eyes. But here the brat appears only once, in the nominally metaphorical guise of "the stranger." The rest of Billy has more or less grown up. He's now as likable as your once-rebellious and still-tolerant uncle who has the quirk of believing that OPEC was designed to ruin his air-conditioning business. B-

52nd Street [Columbia, 1978]
Despite the Chapinesque turns his voice takes when he tries to get raucous, he makes a better Elton John than Leo Sayer--he's got that same omniverous hummability. But when he is (was) good, Elton balances(d) off the smarm with camp, while Billy makes as if he really wants people to believe the words. Yuck. B-

Glass Houses [Columbia, 1980]
From the straight-up hubba-hubba of "You May Be Right" to the Rick Wakeman ostinatos of "Sometimes a Fantasy" to the McCartneyesque melodicism of "Don't Ask Me Why" to the what-it-is of "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," it's all rock and roll to him, but to me it's closer to what pop meant before ironists and aesthetes, including yours truly, appropriated the term. Closer than any skinny-tie bands, that's for sure: gregarious, shameless, and above all profitable. Of course, if it doesn't make up in reach what it lacks in edge, ironists and aesthetes needn't notice it's there. And beyond "Sleeping With the Television On," I couldn't tell you thing one about side two, which I just played three times. B-

The Nylon Curtain [Columbia, 1982]
"People my age, 25 to 40, who grew up as Cold War babies, we don't have anybody writing music for us. There's a lot of formula rock aimed at the 11-year-old market, and there's a lot of MOR for people over 50. But this is an album dealing with us, and our American experience--guilt, pressures, relationships, and the whole Vietnam syndrome." Imagine--in a world where formula rock, MOR, and most of the in between is guilty of association with Billy's (and my) demographic, he talked that shit. OK, you say, so he's no sociologist, and though sociological aptitude does tend to clarify "experience," I'll let it pass. What shocks me is the realization that this consummate rock professional is working on instinct. The basic belief of Cold War babies is that anything less than everything is a cheat, and their piano man agrees. Sure, "Allentown" digs into the rust belt. Right, "Goodnight Saigon" ain't Rambo. And in the relationship songs, sexual politics rads like me were fretting about a decade ago come home to haunt guys who thought they were a crock. But always this music feeds off a sense of deprivation that transcends specifics--it's built into the psyche of the singer and his audience. Does it help that the John Lennon impression (signifying seriousness) vies with the Paul McCartney impression (signifying entertainment value)? You bet. But he's no less deluded than his audience. B

An Innocent Man [Columbia, 1983]
His art album having gone platinum and failed to clear bottom line, Joel comes at his poor neglected generation direct, peddling a nostalgia no one will mistake for philosophy. And although he's still a wordy bastard who can't leave a simple piece of music alone, the pre-Beatle "concept"--unmistakable references to the Four Seasons and Otis Redding (as if Otis entered Billy's world before the Beatles, but never mind) marking a selfconsciously simplified musical orientation--does rein in his showbiz ornateness. A good half of these songs have the timeless melodic appeal of the greatest pop (the greatest pre-rock pop, but never mind)--the chorus he stole from "L. v. Beethoven" is by no means the most pleasing thing here. And though his Stax horns are way too ornate, that doesn't mean they're no fun. B+

Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 and 2 (1973-1985) [Columbia, 1985]
I give up--it would be as perverse to resist his razzle-dazzle as to pretend Led Zep doesn't knock your socks off. Songpoetry, rock and roll, the showtunes to come--such categories just get in his way. He's pure Tin Pan Alley, George M. Cohan if not Irving Berlin for a self-conscious, neoprimitive age, and in this high-quality context his soft early successes--"New York State of Mind," "She's Always a Woman" may the Lord forgive me, the image-making "Piano Man"--sound like the consumer durables there can be no doubt they'll be. It's unfortunate that the confessional codes of contemporary pop put his eternal insecurity around independent females up front, but his woman problems are no worse than Bob Dylan's--or for that matter John Lennon's or Bruce Springsteen's, although he's less pious, hence stupider, about them. He's pretentious, but never pious--going for the pop jugular is all he knows. The worst you can say about him is that half the time his aim isn't perfect. And the worst you can say about this album is that he baited it with two new misses. A-

The Bridge [Columbia, 1986]
Maybe his youthful lyricism, meaning his knack for the tearjerker, is abandoning him. On Greatest Hits "Just the Way You Are" and "She's Always a Woman" are every bit as alive as "Movin' Out" and "Allentown," but here he's best when he's brassy and literal: failed wise guy in "Big Man on Mulberry Street," Ray Charles's coequal on "Baby Grand." And even at his most rockin' he's seventy-five years retro whether he likes it or not--whenever he doesn't hit it just right you want to quarantine him for life in Atlantic City. B

Storm Front [Columbia, 1989]
Instead of going Broadway with his cautionary tales and cornball confessionals, he hires the man from Foreigner. And it makes no difference--even in arena mode he's a force of nature and bad taste. Granted, the best songs are the ones that least suit the mold--the tributes to Montauk and Leningrad, the lament for the working couple, the quiz from Junior Scholastic. And even the worst maintain a level of craft arenas know nothing of. B

River of Dreams [Columbia, 1993] Dud