Piano Man gave Billy Joel his long-desired big hit, but it also somewhat threw him for a loop. He had been driven on Piano Man, determined to deliver an album that established him as both a serious artist and a commercial contender. Having achieved at least one of those goals (critics never gave Joel much credit), he had to release another album quickly if he wanted to keep his profile high, which he did. The problem is, Joel had put all of his best songs on Piano Man, leaving him with a shortage of material. Furthermore, promotional duties ate up his time, leaving him little to write new songs. As a result, Streetlife Serenade, the crucial third album, was a bit of a slump. Stylistically, it was a reiteration of its predecessor's Tumbleweed Connection obsessions, spiked with, of all things, Rockford Files synthesizers and ragtime pulled from The Sting. That isn't a facetious reference, either -- it's no coincidence that the record's single and best song, "The Entertainer," shares a title with the Scott Joplin rag that provided The Sting with a main theme. Joel is attempting a grand Americana lyrical vision, stretching from the Wild West through the Depression to "Los Angelenos" and "The Great Suburban Showdown." It doesn't work, not only because of his shortcomings as a writer, but because he didn't have the time to pull it all together. There are no less than two instrumentals, and even if "Root Beer Rag" (yet another sign of The Sting's influence) is admittedly enjoyable, they're undeniably fillers, as is much of the second side. Since he has skills, he's able to turn out a few winners -- "Roberta," a love song in the vein of Cold Spring Harbor, the mournful "Streetlife Serenader," and the stomping "Los Angelenos" -- but it was the astonishingly bitter "The Entertainer," where he not only disparages his own role, but is filled with venom over "Piano Man" being released in a single edit, that made the subtext clear: he'd had enough with California, enough with the music industry, enough with being a sensitive singer/songwriter. It was time for Billy to say goodbye to Hollywood and head back home to New York.
Streetlife Serenade Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine