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Joel box set sums up many musical ‘Lives’

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, April 6, 2006

The box set is supposed to be something special, a compilation that says, “This is a legitimate, important performer.” Yet not everyone who gets a box set quite fulfills those criteria.

Take Billy Joel for example. His box set “My Lives” is a strong portrait of solidly reliable artist, but it doesn’t present Joel as a legitimate, important performer – though it certainly tries. Spanning five discs, four decades and over sixty tracks, “My Lives” is the kind of box set that, ipso facto, attempts to put him on the level of Bob Dylan (“The Bootleg Series”) or Bruce Springsteen (“Tracks”). The problem is that Joel isn’t quite in the same league – he’s a talented and tuneful songwriter and a competent performer, even if his music veers toward commercial appeal.

He’s had several good-to-great albums over the years (1977’s “The Stranger” and 1983’s “An Innocent Man” among the most notable), but the box set has a different mission – to show Joel in a different dimension, to illustrate the depth and artistry of the writer and performer. Though it mostly succeeds in that task, Joel simply isn’t the revolutionary that Dylan was, nor does he have the fiery dynamics of Springsteen – and that’s exactly why the box set is so problematic.

Yes, Joel had an impressive string of hits (many of which are represented on the set in one form or other), but five discs worth of material is excessive. Three discs of material almost seemed excessive on “Greatest Hits Volumes I – III,” but the demos, alternate versions and live cuts get wearing after a while.

Still, there’s some great material scattered throughout the discs – most of the gems are the unexpected tracks, the material that wouldn’t be expected from a polished craftsman like Joel. Among them are several interesting covers (The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” Leonard Cohen’s “Light as the Breeze” and Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”).

The album tracks and hits are all familiar, in some cases, a little too familiar (“Piano Man,” anyone?) The best songs here are the lesser-known non-singles like “Easy Money” and “An Innocent Man” (one of his very best songs), which don’t have the disadvantage of being incessantly played on AM radio and at SYRs.

The fifth disc is a live performance from Hamburg in 1993. It’s a solid concert by a solid performer, but nothing revelatory. If anything, it highlights how cheesy some of Joel’s material was (“Pressure,” “Big Shot,” etc.) back in the day. The German crowd, oddly enough, seems more into the performance than Joel himself, who seems to be going through the motions a little.

After all is said and done, the question still remains – does Billy Joel’s discography really warrant a box set? Well, if Steely Dan, Rod Stewart and Chicago can all have box sets, then Joel certainly seems deserving enough, even if Joel’s set is more purposeful than either of the aforementioned performers.

“My Lives” is a strong indicator of Joel’s work, and succeeds in painting him in different dimensions, but Joel himself isn’t quite a strong enough singer-songwriter to sustain momentum over the amount of material found on the discs.