Pianos are hip. It’s not been that way for a while really. Throughout noughties unless it was a grade 1 piano riff sample on a Kanye track no one had any interest in letting the piano take centre stage. Fast forward to 2015, and some of the trendiest folk around are making a critical killing from the keys.
In particular, solo acts like Mac Demarco and Tobias Jesso Jr have benefitted from the resurgence of the pianist. Demarco’s mini-album Another One, and Jesso Jr’s 2015 debut Goon both served up piano-backed records about love and loss, which have been gobbled up left right and centre by critics and consumers alike. Nonetheless, quiz any of these icons of contemporary Pitchfork culture about their influences, and you’ll find their roots way back in 70s pop.
I’ve long known my mum is a huge Billy Joel fan. We used to listen to a lot of music together, she and I; beyond the familiar rotation of Dido, Norah Jones, and Dire Straits CDs that rarely left her little Ford Fiesta, she would always wax lyrical about Billy Joel. Being the typical teenager I was I would sigh with distain; the only Billy I was interested in back then was Billy Joe, whose angst-filled brand of scatty pop punk was far flung from the ramblings of some past-it pianist.
It wasn’t until very recently that I started to take my mum a bit more seriously. My musical taste had softened since I arrived at university, and Dido and Norah Jones albums had somehow managed to creep their way back onto my iPod. Like many of you not already familiar with Billy Joel, I pretty much equated his musical career to Piano Man and Uptown Girl – two songs that had been largely ruined for my generation by Weird Al Yankovic and Westlife covers respectively.
As a result, I endeavoured to delve into the unknown. I’m not entirely sure why I happened upon The Stranger. I think maybe it was because of the track Vienna –mum had always claimed it to be a favourite of hers – which features fifth on the album. It wasn’t until after a few listens I did a bit of research, and found that The Stranger is in fact Billy Joel’s most successful album to date – considered by many to be his real commercial breakthrough.
I’m not really surprised; it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of work. Its pace is managed perfectly – flying out of the blocks to Moving Out (Anthony’s Song) only to slip seamlessly into the whistling charm of the intro to eponymous track, The Stranger. Nothing feels out of place, and everything seems necessary. It’s one of those albums that seem to effortlessly capture, over nine tracks, the full gravity of an artist at the peak of his powers.
Whilst The Stranger may have been his Magnus Opus, his influence and support remain as vibrant as ever. A quick trip over to Ticketmaster will reveal that his next show – at his hometown stadium of Madison Square Garden on the 13th of February – is sold out. Nonetheless, if you’re willing to wait, tickets for his August appearance at the same venue are selling for a cool $105. And this is coming from an artist who hasn’t produced an original album for over twenty years.
It is no coincidence that Joel’s performances at Madison Square Gardens have become a proverbial pilgrimage for his fans. His love affair with New York City is one of the most pertinent examples of the powerful link between artists and place. Any cinema critic worth their salt will tell you that in some films, good films, place can become a character in it’s own right. It feels like, over the course of his career, Billy Joel has done something similar with New York. Throughout The Stranger, New York provides the setting for Joel’s music, even when the references aren’t as explicit as they are in tracks like Moving Out.
Far from alienating his non-native fans though, the relationship between Joel and the city he loves provides his stories with a unique substance and flavour – a sort of Humans of New York for love songs.
If the 2010s became the decade we rediscovered the art of the piano, and of the love song, then it’s fitting that it’s also the decade in which I unearthed Billy Joel. That’s not to say that Joel’s career has been buried – this was a very personal discovery. Nonetheless, there’s something deeply satisfying about finding an album as timeless as this, especially when it births a new appreciation for music you’d previously dismissed. So next time you jump in the car, and your parents commandeer the stereo, just remember that maybe, just maybe, they might be more clued in than you’d ever realised.