I’ll admit it. I never really listened to a lot of Billy Joel throughout my life. Sure, there was that one time at overnight camp when we defied an early bedtime by chanting “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. But, besides the basics, I wasn’t much of a fan. However, after spending winter break (or as I like to call it, “Billy Joel Break”) away from my schoolwork, getting a feel for all the music I had somehow happened to bypass, I finally have gained the necessary knowledge and appreciation for this piano legend.
After listening to the newly released four-disc plus DVD set My Lives, I can unmistakably say that this collection will turn the average Piano Man-loving Billy Joel fan into a bona fide expert. This anthology proves to have a fitting title, taking you through the different eras and styles of his music.
The first disc begins with rough copies of some of his earliest works, but also includes a few classics. With crisper-sounding vocals and a lower piano accompaniment than the original, “She’s Got A Way” is the first in a handful of ear-catching tunes on this collection, in addition to “The Siegfried Line” and “New Mexico”. Sadly though, I was regrettably displeased with the provided demo of “Piano Man” and alternate version of “Only The Good Die Young”. The former, with its horrifying echo effect that tainted the entire song and the latter with a Caribbean-esque synthesizer/drums combination ruined my hopes of hearing a new, better version of these musical gems.
The second portion of the set is stronger, thanks to “Christie Lee”, a live version of “Captain Jack” and the heartfelt Ray Charles duet “Baby Grand”, drawing the listener in once again. Also on this disc is “The Prime of Your Life”, a demo of what would eventually turn into “The Longest Time”. This version of the upbeat sing-a-long classic starts out as expected, except for one thing – there’s almost no words. By the second verse, lyrics are replaced with gentle, yet reluctant, ba-da-da’s, making Billy Joel sound like a karaoke singer who pounded a few too many shots before hitting the stage and can’t seem to remember the words.
The rock ballads “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'” and “I Go To Extremes” featured on the third disc prove exactly why a stage musical of Joel’s songs has gained such success. A handful of covers, including The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” also appear on this disc. The phenomenally performed “When You Wish Upon A Star”, complete with its milky, soulful vocals that seem to melt into the music are featured in this part of the collection, rounding out the three discs of mostly pre-recorded music.
Opening with an energizing version of “Moving Out”, the fourth disc in this set immediately stands out as the reason why My Lives was a necessary production. A compilation of various live and classical recordings is a perfect nightcap to this extensive collection. From an Elton John duet on “You May Be Right” to an enticing version of my personal favorite “New York State of Mind”, this remarkable disc could stand on its own two feet, even without the rest of the box set. This last section seals the set as an indispensable collector’s item of Billy Joel’s career, a compilation absolutely worthy of purchasing and listening to for hours on end.