REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/05/2007
Lately, I imagine I’ve been feeling what Billy Joel was going through during the early '70s: working so very hard to try and make it big and succeed. Granted, I never formed an organ/drum duo and recorded one of the worst albums in history, but I can empathize with the effort the Piano Man put into trying to finally nail down a hit.
One cannot talk about Piano Man without talking about the infamous title track. Despite hearing this on the radio approximately every 37 seconds, I never grow tired of the song. Joel’s storytelling abilities are pushed to the forefront, and that personal edge never seems corny or contrived. And what other song do you know that could unite an entire bar in a spontaneous moment of karaoke than this classic?
Unfortunately, the rest of Piano Man is rather hit and miss. Much as I hate to make the inevitable comparison to Elton John, this album resembles Empty Sky, or even the Elton John album in that the artist was cutting his teeth and getting a hang of just what this music business really was like. So while there are glimpses of future grandeur, Joel doesn’t quite reach them yet.
This all being said, a few tracks still manage to get me interested. The massively epic “Ballad Of Billy The Kid” could have been lifted straight out of Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection. One cannot help but get caught up in the sweeping string arrangements and soaring melody. “Worse Comes To Worst” sounds very different than its demo on My Lives, delving almost into funk.
“Captain Jack,” while being one of Joel’s hits, ironically has never impressed me. It’s much too long and lethargic, playing out like a less inspired “Piano Man.” The song also contains one of those trademark Joel moments where he attempts to “shock the listener” (for example, the use of “fuck” during “Laura” on The Nylon Curtain); here it comes in the reference to masturbation. Sorry, Billy, I really don’t want to hear it.
The rest of the tracks fall somewhere in between a mix of bluegrass, country and pop, and none truly leave a memorable impression. I will admit, I enjoy the guitar intro too “You’re My Home,” but overall the song lacks a definitive Joel melody. In fact, much like Elton’s early albums, Piano Man finds Billy struggling to produce those stunning melodies that would eventually make him the 6th greatest selling artist ever. Those skills would evolve over time.
As far as sophomore albums go, Piano Man is far from being at the pinnacle. Hell, Joel wouldn’t truly craft a stand out album until The Stranger, but Piano Man contains enough moments to make it worthwhile.