Billy Joel’s music has suffered in comparison to better establisled acts. His group Hassles were a Vanilla Fudge/Rascals spinoff, his work with Attila was bettered by Lee Michaels, and his only semi-hit was a bit of pop schlock. Recent gigs at a piano bar on the seamy side of L.A. have given him a new perspective and his Piano Man reflects a new seriousness and musical flexibility. Its production is reminiscent of Elton John’s, and his music has the show-tune ambience of David Ackles. But his ten new tunes also introduce a more mature, less frantic musician.
Joel’s best efforts speak to the point about people around him. His sense of detail fleshes out his B-movie characters. “Somewhere Along the Line” holds the album’s most concise observations, waxing philosophical without wallowing in pretentious drivel. “Captain Jack” chronicles the stolidly suburban lifestyle of a decadent middle-class hipster from Hicksville, U.S.A.
Despite Joel’s facility at portraying others, he seems unable to come to terms with himself. The title tune tries to reflect the piano man through his patrons, but Joel fails to illuminate his own character. At other times, like in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” the singer’s bristling ego mocks his supposedly objective point of view.
The production by Michael Stewart and the arrangements by Michael Omartian are full-bodied and thoughtful, employing fine studio help to show Joel’s keyboard technique to best advantage. Stewart sometimes builds his walls of sound too quickly, making anticlimatic what might have been powerfully dramatic, but Billy Joel’s enthusiasm and musical straightforwardness keep everything together and moving briskly along.