Billy Joel’s seminal 1977 release The Stranger is a concept album of sorts, an ode to the singer’s native New York underscored by his paranoid obsession (and resistance) to change. The album begins with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” which decries the popular ‘70s notion that moving out to the suburbs and starting a family is the means to a better life—“Who needs a house out in Hackensack?” he asks, “Is that all you get for your money?” While Joel’s music has always been patently “American,” The Stranger is, in many ways, a rejection of the American Dream. (It’s a proud New York record without the obviousness of “New York State Of Mind,” and it’s purely American without using slogans like “born in the U.S.A.”) Joel’s struggle to keep things constant is apparent on “Just The Way You Are,” an uncharacteristically gooey ballad (for this early in his career) that, like most of his songs, displays an underlying sadness: When he says “I just want someone that I can talk to,” you get the impression that the “you” he’s singing to could be any woman at all. Joel’s pessimism peeks in atop the bouncy piano of the Broadway-style “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” (his “A Day In The Life,” if you will, albeit from the perspective of a bitter New Yorker); it’s the tale of Brenda and Eddie, the prom king and queen who moved out the suburbs to start a new life together but, as Joel poignantly narrates, “just didn’t count on the tears.” Other songs are downright cynical (“Only The Good Die Young,” which explains a girl’s Catholic blues by way of the greaser down the block), while others are thinly veiled in optimism (“She is frequently kind/And she’s suddenly cruel,” Joel sings along to the classic, delicate melody of “She’s Always A Woman”). The Stranger might not carry the weight of Albert Camus’ famous novel of the same name, but its title track certainly finds the singer in an existential crisis, unable to completely expose his true self to his lover or himself: “Well, we all have a face/That we hide away forever/And we take them out and show ourselves/When everyone has gone.” As proof of this seemingly eternal loneliness, most recently displayed by a public announcement that he was actively searching for a new wife (the hunt ended when he met Kate Lee, now 23, in 2003), the album’s cover finds Joel alone on a bed looking down at his mask on the pillow beside him.
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