I don’t care what consequence it brings,” sings Billy Joel in “The Longest Time,” an acapella number from his soul music tribute album, An Innocent Man. “I have been a fool for lesser things.” Well, yes. One need only think back to the brattish pedantry he pawned off as rock sensibility on Glass Houses, an LP whose “rock” sounded more like something Joe Piscopo’s Frank Sinatra would sing than the real thing. Unlike that record, An Innocent Man sounds like the real thing, or at least a real celebration of it. As Joel strolls through the archives of soul, his writerly eye hones in on one style after another until An Innocent Man becomes a panoramic overview of what it must have been like to be a Long Island kid with an ear glued to the radio during the golden dawn of rock and soul and doo-wop.
Without missing a bomp, Joel manages to swing from the Wilson Pickett/James Brown and the Famous Flames-type raunch of “Easy Money” to the overdubbed Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers-style acapella of “The Longest Time” to, most uncanny of all, a perfectly realized mimicry of the Four Seasons’ unfathomable falsetto pop-soul, entitled “Uptown Girl.” Along the way, he passes under the boardwalk to the Drifters’ loping gait (“An Innocent Man”), takes a figurative spin through the Philly-soul district (“Tell Her About It”) and turns his gaze southward, tipping his hat to various personages in Atlantic Records’ celebrated Soul Clan, particularly Ben E. King.
The only wrong note sounded here is “Keeping the Faith,” the album’s postscript, wherein he assures us, unnecessarily, that by resurrecting these styles, he’s not committing an act of nostalgia, and reminds us that “the good old days weren’t always so good/And tomorrow isn’t as bad as it seems.” An optimistic note on which to end the album, I suppose, but the self-justification somewhat abruptly breaks the mood of soulful reverie he’s built up on the preceding nine songs. Still, I can find no other reason to be cynical about a record that’s so plainly a labor of love. An Innocent Man is an affectionate, spirited paean to an undefiled past that’s truly forever.