Hey y’all: Here’s another guest post. Chris Bosman is about one of the nicest guys on Twitter; we met when we wrote at Prefix in 2009, and since then he’s bounced around various websites (Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound) before pioneering #NiceTwitterMonday and becoming a card carrying member of #dadtwitter. He’s also working on a secret project that I’m helping with that I can’t wait to announce.
When I offered him up the list of albums to write about, he jumped right on the Billy Joel. Below he talks about Billy Joel’s relative coolness as it relates to An Innocent Man
It sounds ridiculous to suggest that considering why you have a vinyl copy of a Billy Joel record on your shelf is to consider exactly what your relationship is with the concept of “cool.” But it’s true. Joel has never been cool, even when he was the Piano Man. Joel released that cabaret bar mission statement in the final throes of the Vietnam War after years of protest (and protest music) and it went to number one mostly because of parents. If you were cool in the 1970s you were listening to Blondie or the Who or Stevie Wonder or wearing leather jackets or making fun of disco. Billy Joel was wedding music. Billy Joel is wedding music. Billy Joel will always be wedding music.
Joel always has been well aware of his relationship with cool, and even though he donned a leather jacket and made a self-consciously “harder” record in 1980’s Glass Houses, he still couldn’t fully commit to the idea of being cool. That record’s biggest single “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” lashed out at the generation’s purveyors of that standing, featuring Joel answering his own intentionally out-of-touch questions with a double-tracked snide affectation while also drawing himself parallel with the new wave sounds lauded by the people he was mocking.
The coolest Billy Joel ever was was a brief period in 1983 when he, newly divorced and one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, suddenly found himself dating supermodels like Elle MacPherson and Christie Brinkley. The social politics of the 80s being what they were, being seen with beautiful women had a tendency to up quickly your cool quotient. Ironically, though, this newfound cool acceptance didn’t find Joel seeking to double down on his Glass Houses rebellion. Instead, Joel concoted and released maybe the most willfully uncool album of his career, An Innocent Man.
The concept of An Innocent Man is that it’s Joel revisiting the radio pop sounds of the late 50s and early 60s, the music he grew up on. On the heels of the self-seriousness and Beatles-homage of The Nylon Curtain, , it was a conscious step away from Joel being a “voice of the generation” type and a step toward Joel being a new-school pop standard bearer, the type whose songs would dominate karaoke bars and bar mitzvahs from here to eternity. Basically, it took Joel becoming cool to realize that cool wasn’t actually cool.
Listening to An Innocent Man is kinetic from the onset, opening with a tumbling snare that bursts into a groovy horn attack and Joel rolling easily into a charming vocal performance on “Easy Money”. When Joel opens the second verse of that gambling man manifesto with the line “You don’t have to try too hard,” it’s almost as if he’s singing to himself and the freedom he’s allowing himself fills “Easy Money,” and the rest of An Innocent Man with a laid back potency.
Like on the title track’s chorus, where the titular line “I am an innocent man” take the path of a prizefighter’s uppercut, teasing the midrange for only an instant before arcing upward, bashing into the listener’s chin after the quiet, Temptations-esque bassline-driven verses lulls them into quiet contemplation. And the emphasis that arrangement gives— “I am an innocent man”— is so powerful you’d almost believe that supermodels being willing to spend time with him didn’t play a factor into his earlier divorce.
An Innocent Man's two best-known moments are the doo-wop a capella homage of “The Longest Time” and the Four Seasons bite “Uptown Girl,” and it's not difficult to see why. Joel has consistently had a talent for delivering vocal melodies with an immediate earworm quality, and “Uptown Girl” and “Longest Time” are two of his bests, with every verse strong enough to hold up their respective songs on their own, then sliding into a pre-chorus catchier than most actual choruses, and then really hammering it home with the choruses.
And it’s interesting to note, that both of those tracks actually open (and close) with their catchiest bits, grabbing your attention by the throat, demanding it, never relinquishing it until the song is over. It’s a deft, almost hidden little thing that gets ignored with how ingrained those songs are in your subconscious that only reveals itself when you’re turning the vinyl over and over until you’ve confused which is the A and the B side.
That consistent listenability is lowkey An Innocent Man's strength. Its core concept— a traversal through pre-Beatles rock/pop— inherently prevents the record from beating any particular style into the ground over its length. And with Joel refusing to take himself seriously for the first time in years makes a playthrough of An Innocent Man deceptively breezy, seeming even shorter than its 40-minute runtime.
While Joel may have artistically stronger records than An Innocent Man, or records with more natch recognizable hits, An Innocent Man is a record you’ll never get tired of putting on the record player. You can drift into it, letting it seemingly drift into the background until you’ve inadvertently learned all the words. It’s powerful not because it’s impressive but because it’s satisfying, a reflection of Joel’s satisfaction with his own trip coming to terms with not being cool. He’s not. And that he accepts it on An Innocent Man is pretty damn cool.
Chris Bosman is on Twitter. Follow him at @racecarbrown