Happy 35th Anniversary to Billy Joel’s ninth studio album An Innocent Man, originally released August 8, 1983.
When writing retrospectives, it’s easy to get caught up in a trip of nostalgia, forgiving the sins of an album for the memories they evoke. That’s the power of music. Once you hear an album, it can forever act as a time machine shooting you back to the days of your teens, to your first kiss, to a summer’s road trip or an all-night party. So we shouldn’t be that surprised when artists steeped in music draw on the sounds of their own youth and adolescence as a source of nostalgic inspiration.
This was definitely the case with Billy Joel’s ninth studio album An Innocent Man. Newly divorced and for the first time able to capitalize on his status as a bona fide musician and rock star, Joel started getting caught up in the trappings of fame—that heady trifecta of sex, drugs and piano spun tunes. For Joel it seemed he was more than happy to play his part as he enjoyed dating supermodels who, perhaps without the allure of his rock star mantle, would have passed him by.
By his own admission, Joel says this period of dating took him back to the feeling of “young love” as he found himself feeling “like a teenager again.” Inspired by that feeling, he began writing songs in the vein of the hits of his teen years encompassing music from ‘50s doo-wop through to ‘60s Motown and soul. The trick of course is not to be a carbon copy, lest your efforts end up being pastiche. Thankfully while drawing from the well, Joel adds his own flavor across An Innocent Man.
Album opener and funk rocker “Easy Money” mixes the jittering syncopated grooves of James Brown with the soul infusion of Wilson Pickett, and sees Joel adding just the right mix of rock bluster in his vocals.
Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” serves as the main influence on the title track, but again Joel fashions the influence into something very much his own. With a plea to not be tarred by the feather of failed love in one’s history, Joel crafts “An Innocent Man” as one his greatest songs with a powerful vocal delivery that uplifts and empowers.
With a nod to the doo-wop groups of his youth, Joel took the brave step of recording “For The Longest Time” as a predominately a capella arrangement (save for bass guitar and brushes on snare). While the song walks that thin tightrope between being endearing and annoying, Joel strolls it with conviction. It’s this unabashed, pure homage that rescues the song and made it an unlikely smash hit in 1983.
In fact, it’s surprising that the album with its defined throwback feel generated so many hit singles in an era when music’s most exciting artists were coming to the fore.
But for every hit with “For The Longest Time” and “An Innocent Man” Joel does miss occasionally on the album. Despite cribbing from Beethoven for “This Night,” the song is instantly forgettable and falls into the trap of bringing nothing new to the table. Likewise the rockabilly of “Christie Lee” (one of several nods to his burgeoning relationship with supermodel Christie Brinkley) feels by the numbers and you’d expect more from an homage to other piano legends like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. And “Careless Talk” with its Sam Cooke tinged arrangement and vocals is pleasant enough, but just fails to move the needle.
But when Joel hits his stride, he knocks it out of the park. Take the riff on “You Can’t Hurry Love” with his advice for the new to love, “Tell Her About It.” Joel comes across as a true student of Motown and easily graduates to the head of the class. He makes the timeless grooves of Motown his own and in turn makes “Tell Her About It” a timeless track of its own.
I was never a fan of “Uptown Girl” (the second nod to Christie Brinkley), but one can’t deny the pure joy captured on record as Joel does his best Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. There is a charm at play here that draws you in, and the harmonies are second to none. The song just never really did it for me. But it was another massive, smash hit for Joel, so I’m sure he doesn’t mind.
The beautiful and easy listening staple “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” is an effortless mix of the smooth soul of Smokey Robinson with the wonderful musicality of those legendary Bacharach/David/Warwick combos. It’s a glowing, golden warm hug to the feels and proof, if it was ever needed, of Joel’s innate ability to craft beautiful melodies and straight-to-the-heart lyrics.
Album closer “Keeping The Faith” acts as a precursor to one of Joel’s biggest hits “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” as it name checks its way through key events and nostalgic items of his childhood. But as he had done throughout the album, Joel is careful not to fall into the trap of providing just a pure nostalgic trip as he sings, “The good old days weren't always good / And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.”
Having proved himself as a consummate singer-songwriter, Joel took a bold step with An Innocent Man by embracing the music of his youth and re-presenting it as a counterpoint to the more contemporary synth-heavy musical trends of its day. For those of Joel’s age it may have felt like an easy bet, but the success of it amongst young music buyers who didn’t share the same musical reference points showed that Joel was able to deliver music that would become equally as timeless.