The Stranger may have never reached Number One on the American National charts, but it sold 15 million copies in North America and that my friend is a lot of albums. It remains Billy Joel’s largest selling studio album to date, one that propelled Joel into the upper echelon of musician superstars.
It may not be the best pop album ever produced but it probably comes close. Producer extraordinaire Phil Ramone was brought in and his efforts were immediately fruitful as the production is flawless and the music has a polish and sheen that was missing from his previous albums. When you combine that with Joel’s increasing maturation as a songwriter and musician you have an album that was appealing to a broad spectrum of buyers.
Joel covered a lot of ground with this album as there were stories about sex, temptation, restaurants and hope. Four of its songs would become hit singles and keep him and the album in the public eye for an extended period of time.
“You Catholic girls start much too late, but sooner or later it comes down to fate, I might as well be the one.” Those lyrics are part of “Only The Good Die Young” which is one of my favorite Billy Joel tunes. While I am not Catholic I did grow up in a primarily Catholic community and this song about lust is both amusing, entertaining, and is pop/rock at its best.
“Just The Way You Are” was written for his first wife and won Grammy awards for song and record of the year. While that wife is long gone and he rarely plays the song live, it remains one of the better love songs of the seventies. “She’s Always A Woman” is equally as good. It is a love song that accepts the balance of flaws and perfection and proves that simple is indeed best.
“Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” at over seven minutes, is one the better story songs of his career. It is a track that meanders through three different styles as it moves from a piano based introduction to a light jazz feel and finally to rock ‘n’ roll. The lyrics create an intimate feeling and make you feel as if you are almost ordering from the menu.
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is an all-out rocker with some bite as it criticizes the fake aspirations of blue-collar workers and the middle class.
Even the songs that are not heard as much are excellent. “Get It Right The First Time” is hopeful, “Vienna” is a wonderful ballad, and the title song is melodic.
Billy Joel’s career would never be the same and The Stranger remains a wonderful musical experience over thirty years after its release. It should be required listening for anyone even vaguely interested in American pop music.