[25 July 2008]
A not particularly wise but very popular man once said, “It’s either sadness or euphoria.”
Right. Except when it’s not.
It’s a year late, perhaps, but Billy Joel’s long-admired and often-purchased career peak, 1977’s The Stranger, has been given a 30th anniversary deluxe treatment of the kind accorded to an increasing number of albums, whether they deserve it or not. On the surface, the package is very generous: two CDs (one is the original album, the other is a contemporaneous concert recorded at Carnegie Hall); one DVD featuring live performances and a documentary; a glossy booklet packed with essays, lyrics, and photos; a poster for the Carnegie Hall show; and a little replica of the notebook in which Joel scrawled notes and lyrics for The Stranger, which is something of a revelation (did you know Billy Joel opened shows for Kinky Friedman, the Beach Boys, and Pablo Cruise? Neither did I).
Is it worth it? It depends on your level of fandom. If you’ve never heard The Stranger—it’s sold over ten million copies in the United States alone, so that’s somewhat unlikely—then by all means get to it. It’s as much of a cornerstone of the singer-songwriter movement as Tapestry or Blue, boasting four major hits (“Movin’ Out”, “Only the Good Die Young”, “She’s Always a Woman”, and the Grammy-winning “Just the Way You Are”), a couple of FM-radio staples (“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and the title track), a truly fantastic minor composition (“Vienna”), and two decent songs that can’t help but pale in their surroundings (“Get It Right the First Time” and “Everybody Has a Dream”). There’s no question it’s Joel’s best album.
If you’re already acquainted with the album, but you’re not a fanatic, you can probably pass up the box set. But if you’re into Billy Joel and kinda miss the guy—he hasn’t put out a studio album of pop music in 15 years—this monument to The Stranger will mostly be worth your time and money. The album sounds great, and the packaging is quite nice, better than what Columbia did for Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run on its 30th anniversary a few years ago.
As for the Carnegie Hall show, it’s decent but incomplete—you’re seriously telling me the guy played for one hour? I don’t believe it for a second. Just as Columbia clipped almost all the covers from Springsteen’s Hammersmith Odeon concert for the bonus DVD that came with Born to Run (and did it again when the same show was released on CD), but still billed it as a “complete” concert, there’s been some serious editing here. There’s obviously no good reason for it, either, since another fifteen minutes of music would’ve fit on the CD, or better yet, they could’ve just released the whole show.
The DVD, on the other hand, is somewhat more complete. There’s an hour-long performance for BBC 1’s Old Grey Whistle Test, which only has a four-song overlap with the Carnegie Hall CD. It’s a high-energy show featuring almost half of The Stranger, plus some favorites and deep album tracks (“Souvenir”, “Ain’t No Crime”, “Root Beer Rag”). An affected, insincere, pseudo-barfly version of “New York State of Mind”, complete with an indulgent sax solo, is the only blight on what is otherwise an engaging, fun performance. A 30-minute documentary on the making of The Stranger is useful mostly in terms of the light it shines on the recording process. Learning that “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” was an homage to side two of Abbey Road redeems some of its Springsteen-on-Broadway characteristics. And hearing producer Phil Ramone say that he doesn’t know of any overdubs on the album should give pause to anyone who sees Billy Joel’s music as pop product pieced together in the studio, rather than the work of a gifted songwriter and a sympathetic band. Finally, the promotional videos for “The Stranger” and “Just the Way You Are” seem like an afterthought, but I suppose they’re nice to have. It’s funny that this sort of completeness didn’t extend to the Carnegie Hall portion of the package.
And this unwillingness to really go the distance is what ultimately makes The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Edition a head-scratching addition to the Joel catalogue. Despite most record companies’ regular exhumation of classic albums by major rock and pop artists, Columbia has been a little slow to indulge fans of three of its biggest sellers: Joel’s entire catalogue was given a straight-forward remastering a decade ago, only a third of Bob Dylan’s albums got the improved-sound treatment a few years back, and Springsteen’s records, with the exception of Born to Run, have been untouched. All three of these guys have benefited from deluxe releases of unreleased material, but the upgrading of their proper albums has been somewhat surprisingly non-existent and flawed at best. Born to Run lacked a decent booklet whatsoever, and the inaccurate representation of the Hammersmith Odeon gig was frustrating, even if what they did release was jaw-droppingly good. With The Stranger, there’s a fantastic booklet but an even more grievous edit of the Carnegie Hall show than the Springsteen disc. Who makes these decisions?
As a history lesson—even as an incomplete one—The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Editionserves its purpose, portraying Billy Joel at the moment of his ascent and offering a heap of excellent music. As a piece of product, well, you know it’ll sell just fine. As a potential reward for fans, though, it’s a bit of a tease. So yes, there’s some sadness, some euphoria, and a whole lot of wondering how Columbia will screw up its next high-profile reissue.