Review Summary: Classic rock songwriting and lyricism at its finest.
Black-and-white imagery has something of a special vibe to it when done right. While the earliest days of film, television, and photography were monochromatic because of technological limitations, many artists have opted to use the black-and-white color scheme intentionally to create a certain atmosphere... and why shouldn't they? This approach has been able to convey many different things such as class, elegance, depression, eroticism, romanticism, minimalism, and perhaps most notably, nostalgia. Some examples are especially creative, such as 2011 film The Artist utilizing the concept of silent films being replaced by talkies, contributing to its lack of color; another one is the video for "Suit and Tie" by Justin Timberlake, which combines the black-and-white approach with aforementioned "class" as Timberlake sings with as much smoothness as the title suggests. And then you've got The Stranger by Billy Joel, which manages to use every conveyance mentioned above with its own cover of this variety.
The iconic picture of Billy Joel looking at the mask on the front cover, coupled with the lack of color, ends up revealing more about The Stranger than initially meets the eye. While it seems to represent loneliness, isolation, sadness and all that dark stuff, the abundance of light on the left side of the photo could also represent silver linings within the bleakness. While all of this is most likely based upon speculation, it makes a lot more sense when coupled with the music. True to the lyrics of the title track, which mentions the "faces of the stranger," this is an album of many faces and interpretations. Similar to Billy Joel's bipolar disorder, The Stranger switches through multiple moods and styles, and yet manages to retain its identity and quality throughout.
A wide variety of genres is displayed throughout the album, despite Billy Joel's typical soft piano rock stylings; some songs even end up delving into folk, jazz, and hard rock. In fact, opening track "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" is part of the latter genre and manages to be quite a surprising way to kick things off; what's even odder is that most of the other tracks aren't that loud or intense in comparison. Joel's primary strength is in his largely piano-driven work, and it still appears in spades here. Whether drenched in jazz phrasing with "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," displayed through elegant runs with "She's Always a Woman," or presented in a hard-hitting fashion with "Only the Good Die Young" or "Get it Right the First Time," the man's skill on the instrument is undeniable. It's even more remarkable that he can multitask with both the piano work and his highly expressive singing. On The Stranger in particular, Joel's knack for vocal storytelling is at its best, especially on the epic "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" in which he strings three stories together flawlessly (if the intro and outro count as one story, that is). The music and songwriting accompanying all of this is extremely cohesive and tastefully executed, expressive and dynamic without being too obvious or flashy. Every song fits where it's at in the track listing; the faster and more hard-rocking tunes are thankfully well-separated by the gorgeous ballads so there's a sense of variety throughout the experience.
The ballads are definitely where it's at on this album, showcasing everything that Billy Joel's excelled at in his career. While the title track is more of a hybrid of a ballad and a rocker, many songs are strictly in ballad territory. Something about the minimal accompaniment of many of these ballads seems more personal and endearing, particularly with "She's Always a Woman" and "Just the Way You Are." While the latter has a great saxophone performance from Phil Woods, the build-up is what makes it so great. It simply starts with some isolated keyboard chords, mixing minor and major chords for a deeply intriguing opening; when the drums and bass enter the picture, everything becomes more positive and frankly beautiful. But the former... oh God, the former. "She's Always a Woman" is on another level of quality altogether, mixing Joel's piano playing with elements of Nick Drake and other related artists for a perfectly-composed piano folk song. The piano and acoustic guitar runs meld extremely well together, and once again having minimal instrumentation makes the product so much more intimate, just like the subject matter about Billy Joel's seemingly unconditional love for his then-wife. Going back to the black-and-white vibe, the ballads bring out a sense of romanticism and class despite the usually dark and depressing nature of many of them. Contrary to Elton John's more glam-based approach, Joel was more into the humble side of piano rock, and it shows.
The Stranger is an album unlike any I've ever listened to. The way it mixes emotion, technical skill, multiple moods and atmospheres, and storytelling that's beyond most rock artists' abilities is something to behold. Literally no song is bad, and that's quite an accomplishment considering how inconsistent a good portion of Billy Joel's discography is. Regardless of how dark or light this album is, or how black or white it is, one thing is hard to argue with: it's the definition of "classic."