Sunday, February 26, 2012

Billy Joel: Far from innocent, still awesome

An album homage to the music of the Fifties and Sixties that Joel so loved, "An Innocent Man" at times emulates the structures or sounds of these songs, or dips into lyrical stylings from this era, or is focused on elements of the time (when the youth culture was starting to separate from the Eisenhower-personified adult structure).

This album is a classic by any definition. From the radio hits to the album gems, from doo wop to New Jersey harmony, each track is a goldmine.

Consider the pedigree of the album. Of the 10 songs included on the disc, six were released as singles ("Tell Her About It" at No. 1, "Uptown Girl" at No. 3, "An Innocent Man" at No. 10, "The Longest Time" at No. 14, "Leave a Tender Moment Alone" at No. 27 and "Keeping the Faith" at No. 18). "This Night" was released as the B-side to "Leave a Tender Moment Alone," but was also released as a single on its own merit in other countries.

Of those singles, "Tell Her About It," "Uptown Girl" and "The Longest Time" continue to be staples of classic rock radio. "An Innocent Man" is a powerful vocal and encapsulates the styles and topics of the album to such an extent that naming the album after the track makes total sense, even if it wasn't the strongest or most famous track.

My exposure to the album came in fits and starts. My folks listened to the radio a lot in the Eighties, and "Uptown Girl" and "For the Longest Time" always seemed to be on. And the Chipmunks' cartoon jumped on board and released their own version of "Uptown Girl." For an impressionable kid, these catchy songs that were on the radio and on TV all the time started running as a loop in my head. Not a problem, however, as the quality and joy of the music made them certainly worthwhile.

Though many of these songs are stylistic homages, one shouldn't dismiss the lyrical content of these songs (or of the songs of the original period ... there's good stuff in the late Fifties and early Sixties too). These songs are as relevant now as they ever were. There's love, longing, personal growth, unease with how things are in society ... and an undeniable need for - and enjoyment of - fun.

Scope the lyrics to "Keeping the Faith" and you'll see what I mean:

You can get just so much from a good thing / You can linger too long in your dreams
Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies / 
'Cos the good ol' days weren't always good / and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems

How can you not love a song that is so confrontational, while also so honest and introspective ... on an album so full of homages to past music (including Joel's own past music)? Just utter brilliance.

Wikipedia's entry on the album includes information on the styles that the songs pull from. They are:

01. Easy Money (homage to James Brown and Wilson Pickett)
02. An Innocent Man (homage to Ben E. King and The Drifters)
03. The Longest Time (homage to doo-wop)
04. This Night (also an homage to doo-wop, and uses Beethoven as the basis for the chorus)
05. Tell Her About It (homage to Motown girl groups like The Supremes)
06. Uptown Girl (homage to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons)
07. Careless Talk (homage to Sam Cooke)
08. Christie Lee (homage to Little Richard, named after Christie Brinkley)
09. Leave a Tender Moment Alone (homage to Smokey Robinson)
10. Keeping the Faith (homage to late 1950s-early 1960s gospel-tinged R&B)

Some interesting info there, and pretty fitting. Plus, having just visited the Wikipedia page, I learned that the stacked vocals on "The Longest Time" required 14 background vocal tracks, all done by Joel and pieced together in production. Very versatile, very Brian Wilson-esque. Nifty!

Is "An Innocent Man" Billy Joel's best album? Perhaps not. "The Stranger" is pretty hard to beat, as it is almost a greatest hits album in of itself. "Turnstiles," "Glass Houses" and "River of Dreams" are all fully fleshed out albums, too, and worthy of love.

But "An Innocent Man" is a conceptual marvel, and more consistent and fulfilling than most efforts by many of Joel's contemporary artists. The album didn't get much in the way of awards that year (though "An Innocent Man" and its songs were nominated for a number of things, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was the big album with the big songs in 1983/1984).

On Billy Joel's official website, he discusses all of his albums. When it came to "An Innocent Man," he had just divorced his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, and now had the opportunity to date supermodels because of his own superstar status (models like Elle MacPherson and Christie Brinkley; Brinkley would become his second wife). Because of this freedom and the rush of it all, Joel said, "I kind of felt like a teenager all over again." That feeling comes through strongly across the album. "Keeping the Faith" is basically a celebration of who he is, who he was and how far he'd come. He chronicles his life, and wraps up the tune with this line:

Now I told you my reasons for the whole revival /
Now I'm going outside to have an ice-cold beer in the shade /
Oh I'm going to listen to my 45s / Ain't it wonderful to be alive / When the rock 'n' roll plays
Yeah, when the memory stays /
Yeah, I'm keeping the faith /
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah /
Keeping the faith

To date, Joel hasn't done another pop/rock album since 1993's "River of Dreams," an album released 10 years after "An Innocent Man." It's a pity, as his artistry, his passion, his skill and his musical dexterity are sorely missed. But with albums like "An Innocent Man" and his other great discs easily available, it's up to his listeners to keep the faith. And that's not hard to do with music like this. Good music is the soundtrack to our lives no matter the generation, and "An Innocent Man" is a pleaser.

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