This is the first Billy Joel album in some time that has significantly expanded his repertoire. While Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles had occasional moments, the bulk of Joel’s most memorable material was on Cold Spring Harbor — despite its severe technical flaws — and Piano Man, which gave him his only major single success. This time, while such songs as “Movin’ Out” and “Just the Way You Are” are forced and overly simplistic, the imagery and melodies of The Stranger more often than not work.
Together with producer Phil Ramone, Joel has achieved a fluid sound occasionally sparked by a light soul touch. It is a markedly different effect than his pound-it-out-to-the-back-rows concert flash, although the title song, “Only the Good Die Young” and “Get It Right the First Time” will adapt to that approach as readily as, say, such a Joel signature piece as “Captain Jack.”
“She’s Always a Woman,” which sounds misleadingly tender, is the key to the difference between The Stranger and Joel’s other LPs. We don’t expect subtlety or understatement from him and, indeed, his lyrics can be as smartassed as ever. But Ramone’s emphasis on sound definitely lessens the impact of the sarcasm, which in the long run may help boost Joel’s career immeasurably. In the meantime, old fans will have to listen more carefully than usual.