Billy Joel: My Lives (Columbia/Legacy)

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Admit it: Some of you out there read the words “over five hours of Billy Joel” and cringe, don’t you? You have an unlikely kindred soul on that front: Billy Joel himself. “People who just know Billy Joel from Top 40 singles may not like Billy Joel,” the Piano Man states in the liner notes to My Lives, his new career-spanning retrospective, “and I can’t necessarily blame them. I don’t think that really represents the sum and substance of my work.” That sum and substance just might take a lot of people by surprise. That’s the goal of My Lives and on some fronts it succeeds wildly

The four-disc, 66-song anthology moves chronologically through every era of Joel’s career, featuring tracks selected by the man himself to give, in his mind, a definitive look at his entire body of work. The collection’s first—and by far best—disc begins with Joel’s pre-solo work, an era that until now had largely been lost and forgotten. Two songs apiece highlight Joel’s ’60s garage bands the Lost Souls and the Hassles (the latter a vast improvement over the former, although with better production, either could comfortably sit next to the Searchers or the Zombies on oldies radio). One lone song represents Attila, his short-lived heavy metal duo that has the distinction of being named the All Music Guide’s worst album of all time (although to be fair, the instrumental “Amplifier Fire” and its amped-up keyboard boogie make it hard to understand how the rest of the album could really be that bad).

The rest of the first disc covers Joel’s most prolific era, from his early solo recordings through 1980’s Glass Houses. Most songs are represented in stripped-down, solo piano demos, putting in full view his skills as both a songwriter and storyteller. Some of the songs take on drastically new lives, both good (the Loaded-era Velvet Underground pop of “Oyster Bay”) and bad (a reggae-fied take on “Only the Good Die Young” that we can all be thankful never made it onto The Stranger); Joel’s signature tune “Piano Man” makes an appearance in an early version, though its half-formed lyrics only hint at the anthem he would later construct. The Glass Houses tracks that wrap the first disc, an extended cut of “Zanzibar” and the classic “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” illustrate how his style had morphed into a full-band sound built for 1980s rock radio.

Disc two opens with a fine live version of “Captain Jack” before settling into spottier territory. Joel released just three albums between 1981 and 1988, and with so little to choose from, the disc relies heavily on 1983’s Innocent Man. As Joel settled into his songwriting style, demo versions, alternate takes, and b-sides seemed to disappear, as this disc features mostly album versions of songs or demos so close they may as well be the album versions. The lone exception is the wonderful “The Prime of Your Life,” an uplifting Broadway-worthy number that’s light years from the doo-wop song “The Longest Time” it became.

The second disc closes with a note perfect but unnecessary cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” previewing the anthology’s third disc, which covers Joel’s last two pop albums (1989’s Storm Front and 1993’s River of Dreams) but relies heavily on a smattering of covers from various soundtracks and collections. “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” and “I Go to Extremes” are as fine as ever, but the remaining hodgepodge runs the gamut from sheer fun (“Why Should I Worry” from the Disney ’toon Oliver & Company, the Elvis hits “All Shook Up” and “Heartbreak Hotel” from Honeymoon in Vegas, the jazzy “In a Sentimental Mood”) to the completely unnecessary (“When You Wish Upon a Star,” a lifeless live version of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout”). Disc four continues to fill in the holes with a few scattered tracks from The Essential Video Collection and the stately live rendition of “New York State of Mind” from America: A Tribute to Heroes before closing with a trio of Joel’s post-pop career as a classical composer.

The set as a whole tries to accomplish two separate tasks: The first two discs use rare and unreleased tracks to construct an argument for Joel’s canonization as the great songwriter his fans always suspected him of being, while the last two compile his various and sundry non-album tracks in one convenient place. The extensive liner notes by Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis attempt to bridge the gap, but ultimately, My Lives is simply a great gift for diehard fans and completists, but contains too much fluff to recommend to the naysayers who would marvel at Joel’s early output but scoff at the set’s back half.

As an added bonus for hardcore fans, My Lives also includes a DVD of a 1993 concert from the River of Dreams tour, originally broadcast on the Disney Channel. Early in the set, Joel acts tired and uninterested, seemingly telegraphing his imminent retirement from pop songwriting, but comes alive during a smattering of his at-the-time more recent output (“The River of Dreams,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire”). The peak of the concert is a quiet, heartbreaking rendition of “Goodnight Saigon,” Joel’s tender tribute to the veterans of Vietnam. The entire rock spectacle of the show melts away, letting Billy Joel remind you one last time that if you’re in the mood for a melody, he can still have you feeling all right.

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