Billy Joel, an icon (too much) of his time returns

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Billy Joel, an icon (too much) of his time returns

Billy Joel concluded ‘River of Dreams’, his 1993 album, his last to date, by saying goodbye. In ‘Famous Last Words’, Joel closed a “book” that he has not reopened… until now. ‘Turn the Lights Back On’, Billy Joel’s first single in many years, marks the return to pop of one of the great forces of American popular music of the last century. In 2007, Joel released two jazz songs, ‘All My Life’ and ‘Christmas in Fallujah’, but in ‘Turn the Lights Back On’ the Billy Joel we all know returns, the one who has written a good handful of hymns that are They continue to listen to this day.

Which means that the ‘Piano Man’ is back: ‘Turn the Lights Back On’ is a classic Billy Joel piano song, so much so that it seems like not so many years have passed since ‘The Stranger’ completely turned its corner. career. And, in 1977, it was the fifth album that Billy Joel published. The good – the really good – had been a long time coming.

Is this the case with ‘Turn the Lights Back On’? Partly. ‘Turn the Lights Back On’ is based on a classic, beautiful and heartfelt melody, and Joel, one of the most beautiful male voices in pop, looks in top vocal shape at 74 years old. The song, which plays with the double meaning of returning to a romantic relationship and to the arms of fans, is sentimental and sweet, but Billy Joel’s compositional elegance provides a necessary balance. The downside is that the production sounds too artificial – those drums – and the orchestration, so plaintive, so emotional, adds a pomposity that confirms that more, sometimes, is not better.

It’s too soon to know if ‘Turn the Lights Back On’ will become a canonical Billy Joel song. Perhaps that is completely impossible given that Billy Joel’s repertoire exists too anchored in his time, like the repertoire of so many others, for better and for worse.

Billy Joel’s return to music opens the door to the public to a tremendously successful career, but also complicated by being too much a product of his time for better and worse. Billy Joel has never been a sophisticated lyricist, but he has known how to tell stories and tell them well. His portrait of a night of revelry in ‘Piano Man’, a classic among classics, or his return to the big city in ‘New York State of Mind’, a song that Barbra Streisand would cover, opening Billy Joel to a larger audience, is They count among their best moments, always sticking to the personal and autobiographical.

Music has been another of the themes that Billy Joel has been able to portray. ‘The Entertainer’ mocked the trend of shortening songs for the radio back in 1974. And ‘It’s Still Rock n’ Roll to Me’ talked about pop music and changes in fashion, accepting that old music is not necessarily better. .

But Billy Joel has also written a lot about the women in his life and there has been a lot of criticism he has received for the “casual misogyny” present in some of his most popular songs. The melodies of ‘Just the Way You Are’ or ‘She She She’s Always a Woman’ could be as beautiful as her lyrics blushing in the paternalism of her. ‘Big Shot’ was a tantrum full of stereotypes and prejudices that didn’t leave him in a good place either. ‘An Innocent Man’, the typical portrait of that good boy who is not like everyone else – but in reality is – has aged especially badly. ‘Modern Woman’, just like a portrait of the “modern woman” of the 80s, doesn’t know if she is empowering or just the opposite.

And despite everything, the songs survive. Although Billy Joel has not modernized his catalog in any way, as his former tour partner Elton John has done, reaching out to new – and not so new – talent and remixing old hits; even though the biopic about his life that is being produced promises not to be as fascinating as others; Despite the fact that the new generations hardly mention him, despite all this, Billy Joel’s streaming on Spotify is typical of a current superstar and the artist has not stopped playing in all these years, filling stadiums, especially in the United States. , where he is a king. In his country, he is the sixth best-selling artist in history.

Billy Joel may not tour internationally like Elton John or Madonna, but his music has by no means been forgotten, and continues to be discovered. The one of all the stages, because Joel’s successful career has really been in the background. Joel’s debut, ‘Cold Spring Harbor’, from 1971, was released poorly mastered and was a commercial failure. Later, ‘Piano Man’ put him on the map, but until ‘The Stranger’ came along he was not seen as anything more than an Elton John imitator. So songs like ‘Movin’ Out’ were already incontestable. ‘The Stranger’ (1977) and ’52nd Street’ (1978) are easily two of the best pop albums of that decade (by the way, ’52nd Street’ won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1980 and was one of the first discs commercially distributed in CD format, in 1982).

The successes continued in the following decades for Joel, although his complete works have rarely been the subject of retrospectives: ‘The Nylon Street’ is far from being the album that has aged best from 1982, the year of ‘Thriller’. Still, it was a fruitful decade for Billy. ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me’ became his first number 1 single on the Billboard despite his -deliberately- imposed rock pose. ‘Uptown Girl’, ultimately the most successful song of his career, would arrive later, in 1983, more than 10 years after his debut. In Spain we are probably more familiar with the teen-pop version of Westlife, which reached number 7 on the official singles chart. ‘We Did n’t Start the Fire’, a single from 1988, is another of his most listened to hits today, as its reproductions on Spotify are close to 500 million. And I still haven’t mentioned the great ‘Vienna’, another of the hits taken from ‘The Stranger’.

Joel’s commercial successes would end with ‘River of Dreams’ (1993), until now his final pop album, since the next one, ‘Fantasies & Delusions’, published in 2001, was composed of instrumental pieces played on piano. But Joel seems ready to resume his career as we remember it. On February 4, Joel will sing ‘Turn the Lights Back On’ at the Grammys ceremony. “It will be a good time to (re)discover her music, travel with it back in time, sometimes too far back, and perhaps prepare for the arrival of a new Piano Man album, so many decades later.”

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Simon Müller

Simon Müller is the driving force behind UMusic, embodying a lifelong passion for all things melodious. Born and raised in New York, his love for music took form at an early age and fueled his journey from an avid music enthusiast to the founder of a leading music-centered website. Simon's diverse musical tastes and intrinsic understanding of acoustic elements offer a unique perspective to the UMusic community. Sporting a dedicated commitment to aural enrichment and hearing health, his vision extends beyond just delivering news - he aspires to create a network of informed, appreciative music lovers. Spend a moment in Mueller's company, and you'd find his passion infectious – music isn’t simply his job, it’s his heartbeat.