How Billy Joel Returned to Pop Music

“If I get back in harness, it’s not just about singing, it’s about promotion, it’s about playing, it’s about the radio, politics, business, blah, blah, blah,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “I didn’t want to be back in harness, but if you’re going to commit, you’ve got to commit a hundred percent. So I said [expletive] it.”

“Turn the Lights Back On,” which Joel premiered live at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night in Los Angeles and was released on his longtime label, Columbia, drew him in with its lyrics about a relationship teetering on the brink. “There’s always an insecurity about, you know, am I going to hurt this relationship? Am I going to do something to screw it up? ’Cause I’ve done it in the past.” (Joel is married for the fourth time, and has two young daughters.)

As the recording process went on, Joel had ideas — about percussion, strings, an acoustic guitar providing a pulse. The heart of the track is his crystalline vocal, which carries over his steady piano work, with a few splashes of filigree on the bridge. Part of the freedom he felt collaborating on the song was that “the focus of it was the music, not the music business.”

Some of the old concerns have faded with age, and time. “I remember stressing when I would release a recording. Is this going to be a hit?” he said. “What are the critics going to say? Are people going to like it? I don’t have any of that now. I just sang a song. That’s it. If they like it, great. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good.”

Joel is ending his Garden run in July with his 150th performance at the arena, which will offer him more flexibility in booking shows inside and out of New York. He’s not counting out further writing with Wexler (“Anything’s possible”), and for the first time since the residency’s start, he has a new song to add to his set lists.

“It took somebody who believed in a new Billy Joel record to get Billy Joel to make a record,” Joel said with a touch of awe, “’cause I wasn’t like that. I wasn’t a fan of Billy Joel. He was. And I really didn’t recognize some of the things he wanted from me until I heard it back.” He returned to the understated reaction that made the whole thing possible: “And I went, I don’t hate that. It’s not bad.”

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