Two years living down an album he hated gave Billy Joel plenty of time to hone his chops in bars and on the road, and it was the latter that helped him get a deal with Columbia Records. He certainly sounds more confident on Piano Man, and dare we say a little tougher.
“Travellin’ Prayer” would be an ordinary country hoedown (complete with banjo, fiddle and jawbone) if not for the jazzy chords at the start. Somehow, it works. Despite its ubiquity, the title track is a very vivid portrait of the cocktail lounge crowd, whatever the hell a “real estate novelist” is. “Ain’t No Crime” could be accused of having a few clichés, but consider that this was 1973, and most sitcom theme songs hadn’t been written yet. “You’re My Home” is another excellent love song (his first such one, if you hadn’t heard “She’s Got A Way” yet) and we can forgive the line about his beloved being his “instant pleasure dome”; it’s not like her body is a wonderland or anything. As long as the title track was, he still puts another epic at the end of the first side. “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid” isn’t any more daring or out-of-place than Elton John’s view of the Old West, but there are enough Copland references and a cute twist that make it worth sitting through.
“Worse Comes To Worst” is a little annoying; the structure is ordinary (for him) and the wah-wah guitar just isn’t that cool. His vocals aren’t tough enough, but that’s remedied on “Stop In Nevada”, a portrait of a liberated woman with a suitably Elton-worthy string arrangement. “If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)” rises above its parentheses to be memorable, as does “Somewhere Down The Line”, designed to rouse arena audiences. It’s particularly impressive that the final organ note on that song nicely sets up the intro of “Captain Jack”, the album’s other epic, and still a haunting one. Each verse provides a skewering of the teenage loser in Anytown, USA, each verse more damaging than the last. There might be a hint of Lennon in the vocal, and every white American male remembers the first time he heard the word “masturbate” on the radio. The most basic of chords make for a truly stirring chorus, and it fades away to end the album.
Piano Man flows very well, split as it is between “One Side” and “Another Side” on the original LP, with its stark cover. The plethora of session rats gives it a slickness, but it very much sounds like the Billy Joel people came to know. (Apparently the Legacy Edition includes the “legendary” radio broadcast that got him signed to Columbia; we haven’t heard it, but that would appear to be nice addition to the catalog.)
Billy Joel Piano Man (1973)—3½