Regarding a recent post on the "Ranking All 121 Billy Joel Songs," longtime reader Michael Greenspan offers the following comments:
Many thanks to Craig for this chance to praise a few tracks by one of my favorite artists.
I'm limiting myself to discussing eight tracks, each meeting three criteria:
Not a hit
Bonanos ranked below the top 50
Belongs in the top 50
Bonanos generally uses the term "song" rather than "track," but "track" is more accurate. A song is chords, melody, lyrics and feel ("Mambo, 135 bpm"). A track is the recording of the song.
"Where's the Orchestra?" from The Nylon Curtain
(Bonanos ranks it #53: "a little low-energy, but" with "interesting lyrics.")
Very pretty song, closer to musical theater than to pop. Inventive chord progression, complex melody. Among rock songwriters, only Joel and Paul McCartney have composed music this lovely in this way.
There's no percussion and no guitars. More than usual, Joel's voice is the focus, and he gives a terrific understated performance.
The lyrics are more cryptic than in almost any other song of Joel’s. I think he’s using theater as a metaphor for life: the narrator, initially bewildered by the show he’s watching, grows gradually wiser. The final verse is especially good:
And after the closing lines
And after the curtain calls
The curtain falls
On empty chairs
Where’s the orchestra?
If you listen to it, notice how gracefully he rhymes "calls"/"falls" and "chairs"/"Where’s." Another skill rare in rock.
As Bonanos notes, the melody of “Allentown” appears toward the end, a touch I find haunting; not sure why.
"Souvenir" from Streetlife Serenade
(Bonanos ranks it #63: "Nice little prelude to ... something.")
Another lovely song, this one just piano and vocal. Pace Bonanos, it sounds like an epilogue rather than a prelude; Joel used to close concerts with it. (He’d then advise the crowd, "Don’t take any sh-t from anybody.")
The chord progression shows Joel’s classical influences, with the melody flowing easily above it. He makes that kind of writing seem effortless, and it really, really isn’t.
The lyrics are less strong; I wish he’d saved "away" for the final line—it's in "File away"—and “But that’s the price you pay” sounds fine but doesn’t make sense. (Pay for what?)
Still, a good song, effectively wistful.
A subtle pleasure in "Souvenir" is that the lyrics and melody line up exactly. By which I mean that the first and sixth lines ("A picture postcard," "And your mementos"), sung over the same melody, have the same stresses and number of syllables; similarly for the second and seventh lines, the third and eighth, and the fourth and ninth. (The fifth and tenth lines follow different bits of melody.) That level of craft has almost vanished from rock, and Joel achieved it often.