“She’s got a way about her…I don’t know what it is,” Billy Joel sings on his very first album. But it isn’t long before the song’s narrator explicates many of those ways about her, like a “smile that heals me” or “a light around her.” Even if he can’t put his finger on it, he’s confident that “a million dreams of love surround her ev’rywhere.” Yet rarely (in life or in art) has love been so simple for Billy Joel. “She’s Got a Way” lends its title to a new compilation subtitled Love Songs (Columbia/Legacy 88765 43039 2, 2013), collecting eighteen amorous sides from the Billy Joel songbook. These songs, both familiar singles and (relatively) less familiar album cuts, underline Joel’s position as a latter-day successor to the writers who created the Great American Songbook. Even as he’s created specific characters in each song with memorable turns of phrase, Joel has always written with a knowing universality. It’s kept his music vibrant some twenty years after he apparently retired from the business of making records, and it saves the retread that is Love Songs from feeling all too stale.
Though the twin poles of love and lust are in the forefront of these songs, they’re not all so much “love songs” as songs of love. A gifted craftsman from his very first album, 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor, Joel expresses his sentiments with a variety of musical styles from bluegrass (“Travelin’ Prayer”) to street-corner doo wop (“This Night”). The inclusion of the anthemic “This is the Time” allows the song to be heard in a new context. Its chorus was ready-made for senior proms, graduations and the like: “This is time to remember ‘cause it will not last forever/These are the days to hold on to/’Cause we won’t, although we’ll want to.” But there’s also a sense of the song as Joel’s own, personal “Glory Days.” Its setting, where dreams are just as likely to crumble as buildings, could just as easily be the Jersey Shore as Joel’s beloved Long Island: “We walked on the beach beside that old hotel/They’re tearin’ it down now, but it’s just as well/I haven’t shown you everything a man can do/So stay with me, baby, I’ve got plans for you.” In a few reflective lines, Joel establishes his scrappy yet committed persona in a familiar, blue-collar setting, but by the chorus, the song has transcended its “love song” roots as an ode to both living in the moment and wistfully holding onto the past.
The shadows of evening figure prominently in Joel’s visions of romance: “This Night,” “Until the Night,” “The Night is So Young,” and piano solo “Nocturne” are all heard here. Those dark hours make for Joel’s redemption and his destruction. He can barely stand it as the hours pass, “until the night” when he can see, and touch, his girl again. The song builds to Richie Cannata’s euphoric saxophone solo and wail of fulfillment. The singer’s “baby” is “coming home tonight” in “She’s Right on Time,” another one of the lesser-known gems on this set. Billy is still adopting the role of a working Joe (Joel?) in “The Night is Still Young,” a track which originally premiered on his Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II. No doubt something strongly resonated in the story of a man who “can see a time coming when I’m gonna throw my suitcase out.” Other than infrequent concert appearances, it seems that Joel has indeed thrown that suitcase out.
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A hallmark of these songs, too, is Joel’s embrace of contradictions. There are straight-ahead, tender odes such as the touching and altogether lovely “You’re My Home,” one of his most underrated compositions. But more often, the singer is attracted to “trouble” women. The titular character of “She’s Always a Woman” must be as difficult as the woman of the AM perennial “Just the Way You Are” is simple (or at least, uncomplicated), but Joel still romanticizes her. Then there’s the lady who’s such a “Temptation” (“and nothing can save me”) and the woman who’s lost faith in her lover as he proclaims himself to be “An Innocent Man.”
Joel’s mastery of his songwriting art has made his rock-and-roll credentials suspicious to some, though “State of Grace” (from 1989’s Storm Front, complete with big-eighties drums), the original version of “Shameless” (from the same album and later transformed into a hit for Garth Brooks) and River of Dreams’ “All About Soul” all rock considerably. It’s no matter, though. Last month, Joel returned to the New York stage, rocking harder than most in an impassioned, engaged, and well-received set at the 12-12-12 concert for Hurricane Sandy relief. But perhaps Joel should take a cue from another songwriter. One day prior to 12-12-12, Beck Hansen released Song Reader, a deluxe sheet music folio of new songs that have gone unrecorded by their writer. The often-idiosyncratic writer consciously set out to create a set of songs that could be interpreted by others, Tin Pan Alley-style. And despite coming of age in the rock era, that’s exactly what Billy Joel has always done. Many of Joel’s finest songs reside in that rarefied milieu. One still holds out hope that he has more songs within him, either as a recording artist or, like Beck, purely as a songwriter. (Joel’s last major statement as a singer/songwriter, “All My Life,” was written for his most recent, now-divorced wife Katie Lee, and was reportedly first pitched to Tony Bennett. Though this song has been overlooked here and likely for the obvious reasons, it’s squarely in the lush, classic tradition, and would have fit comfortably on Love Songs.)
She’s Got a Way: Love Songs, alas, boasts no rarities; the closest you’ll hear is the remixed version of River of Dreams’ “All About Soul” from the third volume of Joel’s Greatest Hits. With no new enticements, it’s far from an essential purchase for those who already own the artist’s catalogue. Though the set was compiled by engineer Vic Anesini, it’s been remastered by Ted Jensen. The sound is comparable to that of Jensen’s remasters of Joel’s albums. Anesini should be credited, however, with curating an intelligent set; one wonders if he made the conscious choice to widen its appeal by avoiding more specific songs like “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” “Why Judy Why,” or “Uptown Girl,” however strong they might be. The sparse booklet doesn’t include any new liner notes or assessments of the music, but full lyrics are thankfully included.
Love Songs closes out with “And So It Goes,” also from Storm Front and another one of the artist’s most successful bids for a true pop standard: “My silence is my self-defense,” the singer asserts, “and every time I’ve held a rose, it seems I only felt the thorns.” It’s a wounded note on which to end the compilation, tinged with just a note of hope directed at a loved one: “…and you can have this heart to break/And so it goes, And so it goes/And you’re the only one who knows.” Self-defense or not, it’s impossible to listen to Love Songs and not hope that Billy Joel’s long silence as a composer and lyricist is soon broken.
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