After listening to The Hits, you’ll either get really depressed about American masculinity, or you’ll admire the naked hustle of our sixth-biggest recording artist.
Billy Joel’s songs remain inescapable, at least at the grocery store, so count your blessings. They could be a whole lot blander. The guy’s two basic modes are bathetic and jerky. He’s eager to please and ready to fight. Some songs, like “Piano Man”, mix up the bathos with the jerkiness. Some, like “Allentown”, avoid both completely. If you’re forced to choose between the two, Joel’s obnoxious songs are way more interesting than his sappy songs.
So give Columbia Records credit. When forced to choose 19 songs for Joel’s first career-spanning single-CD compilation, The Hits, they went with the big shots. At nearly every opportunity, this album goes for the sarcastic jugular, neglecting the melodic salves that often charted higher. (Although, this being Billy Joel, even the sarcastic melodies are pretty great.) Joel’s 1971 debut, Cold Spring Harbor, is represented not by the ballad “She’s Got a Way”, but by the obscure Bronx cheer “Everybody Loves You Now”. (Best line: “Keep your eyes ahead and don’t look down / And lock yourself inside your sacred wall”.)
Likewise, The Hits omits “She’s Always a Woman” and “Just the Way You Are” from Joel’s existential screed The Stranger, opting instead for the anti-Catholic “Only the Good Die Young” and the anti-”ack”-word “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”. (Of the hard-working Sgt. O’Leary, Anthony says, “If he can’t drive with a broken back / At least he can polish the fenders”. It’s a perfect line of spiteful illogic.) 52nd Street is here not for “Honesty”, but for “My Life” and “Big Shot”, home of the world-historic “Dom Perignon in your hand and the spoon up your nose”. According to this compilation, the Top 10 hits “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and “An Innocent Man” don’t exist. That’s a world I wanna live in.
The Hits makes a convincing case for Joel as an ace stylistic shapeshifter, even adjusting his voice as he dabbles, the old Beatles trick. The throaty emoter of “New York State of Mind” is barely present in the Joe Jackson clone that whips out “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”. True, Joel’s genre exercises sometimes miss their mark. In “A Matter of Trust”, Joel’s “hard rock” band just kind of sits there, and his sweet doo-wop entry “The Longest Time” has always seemed marred by its anachronistic “I want you so bad”. But still -- how many singers would attempt both those songs, let alone write them? Try to reconcile the one-man choir of “Time” with the blowhard who bellows, “I know you’re an emotional girl!” in “A Matter of Trust”. You’ll either get really depressed about American masculinity, or you’ll admire the naked hustle of our sixth-biggest recording artist. When it comes to entertaining us, he’s shameless.
Of course, there are songs that don’t invite any shame at all. “Allentown” is sharp social commentary, with a melody as complex as its lyrical dilemmas and working-in-a-coalmine grunts borrowed from Lee Dorsey. “Pressure” is a war between Man and Synth, unresolved despite Joel’s anguished screams. And for all you yaks talkin’ smack like “Lists aren’t songs”, just TRY writing a catchy tune that rhymes “Pasternak” with “Kerouac”. If you grew up with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, you know that hearing any of its historical name-drops is like turning over the Queen of Diamonds in The Manchurian Candidate. Only instead of assassinating people, you’re compelled to finish singing the song, regardless of whom you might annoy. In the most recent DSM-IV, this is called the Harry Truman Doris Day Trigger.
Look, in our digital world there’s little reason to buy somebody else’s compilation of Billy Joel songs, especially one that doesn’t include “It’s All About Soul” or the early-hip-hop fave “Stiletto”. Maybe you need a boss’s gift or something. Yet it’s refreshing that, on the eve of a highfalutin’ 40th-anniversary reissue campaign, Columbia chose to emphasize Joel’s impolite side.