One of the raps against Billy Joel has been that he's more a songsmith, a craftsman, than an artist . . . as if we've been hearing a lot of Franz Schubert in the Top 40 lately.
Well, as his new Columbia album "Storm Front" shows, maybe Joel isn't a breathtaking, cutting-edge artiste. No, he's more a pop-rock populist with a remarkably consistent knack for catchy, and sometimes rowdy, tunes and lyrics that nevertheless harbor a timely thought or two."Storm Front" proves that, after 16 years in the spotlight, Billy Joel is still on the mark. The 10-song set, co-produced by Joel and Foreigner's Mick Jones, is vibrant, diverse and in tune with the times.
"We Didn't Start the Fire," a punchy hit list of turbulent world history since 1949 - the year of Joel's birth - zipped to No. 1 (only his third chart-topper, which may surprise some), and towed the album to No. 1 as well. The song is classic Joel - fresh, clever, wry - and it probably prompted many a teen to crack open the family Brittanica. Imagine discovering U-2 was a spy plane before it was an Irish rock group!
Joel's albums often fit a theme. "Nylon Curtain," for instance, zeroed in on the stresses and strains of contemporary American life circa 1981 ("Pressure," "Allentown"); "An Innocent Man" took a delightful leap back to '60s pop ("Tell Her About It," "Uptown Girl"). Both bents, of course, show up in his work before and after those albums.
"Storm Front" has at least two unifying threads; maybe three. First, Joel has always put a lot of himself into his songs, and his personal life and not-so-private thoughts are scattered throughout this collection. And second, the tracks survey an engaging range of pop styles - but the moods are all vintage Billy Joel.
The opener, "That's Not Her Style," fits both descriptions. Ostensibly defending a maligned woman, the song obviously and dismissively targets the tabloid gossip that often swirls around his wife, model Christie Brinkley. So it's personal. But the tough, blues-based arrangement is familiar Joel.
The new single, "I Go to Extremes," is another confessional, in his relentless late-'70s rock mode, examining the mercurial (dare we say it?) artistic temperament.
The album also has a nautical submotif: "The Downeaster `Alexa' " is a fine folk-rock seafaring song about hard times and dashed dreams, a la "Allentown," and the title tune turns the coastal Beaufort wind scale into a metaphor for life - Joel's life and most anyone else's.
"The flag on the (album) cover is a hurricane flag," Joel said in one interview. "The Beaufort wind force scale runs from a light breeze, No. 1, to hurricane, which is No. 10. The flag you're seeing is No. 10, red with a black square in the middle. It means the worst weather conditions possible. When you see that flag you don't go anywhere. Either you pull your boat out of the water, or you head out to sea and drive into the face of the storm."
"Storm Front" (the song) has a sassy, Memphis-soulful sound, tapping Joel's husky rhythm-and-blues voice, which also shows up on another funky horn-backed track, "When in Rome." His chameleon vocals have always been amazing.
"Leningrad" is his glasnost offering - Joel was one of the first Western rock stars to stage full-fledged shows in the USSR. The lovely story-song is a tribute to peace, friendship and the gentler side of human nature.
Many fans are unfamiliar with Joel's earliest solo albums. This set's final cut is reminiscent of that period. "And So It Goes" recalls the album "Cold Spring Harbor," with just piano and a bit of synthesizer backing Joel's subdued, even slightly pessimistic, ruminations about love and vulnerability.
That's the appeal of Billy Joel. He's tough and tender. He's rock and blue-eyed soul and the occasional sentimental ballad. He's glib pop-rock and reflective pop psychology. He's a craftsman - and an artist.