“For the longest time – Billy Joel fans have been waiting for the ultimate collection,” declares the album cover. “This is it.” Key word: fans. At some point in every piano man’s career – after attempts at classical music, sobriety and marrying a college co-ed – a five-disc epic of a hits collection is inevitable.
My Lives is Billy Joel’s attempt at summarizing his career, thus far, in recordings. Four audio discs and a DVD span his greatest pop music hits as well as his not-so-essential piano compositions.
To give Joel credit, his ability to churn out piano ditties people want to hear has kept him on the radio for the last three decades. “New York State of Mind” is pretty hard to resist with it’s sentimental, lyrical imagery, especially when re-released live after Sept. 11.
Taking advantage of his star-power, Joel duets with Stevie Winwood and the late Ray Charles on My Lives and also records versions of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan standbys. However, a more concise double-album would have been adequate – the concert DVD, with 15 of his most celebrated tunes, is easier to swallow for casual Joel listeners. While it’s nice to hear the original recordings of “Piano Man,” listening through the reverb on numerous demos is more of a headache than an exciting bonus.
With many of the songs on My Lives, Joel is either making a valiant attempt at including the breadth of his catalog or trying to make as much money as possible. It’s as if Joel couldn’t decide exactly which songs were his greatest hits and instead incorporated as much as possible to cover all the bases. Most of Disc 1 and Disc 4 is unnecessary, though some of the collection’s most interesting moments come with Billy’s bar band days and “Amplifier Fire” with heavy metal group Attila (Yes, heavy metal, and yes, Attila as in “the Hun”).
Unless you’re a huge Joel fan, listening to these CDs will involve a great deal of skipping. “Only the Good Die Young,” “She’s Got a Way,” “New York State of Mind,” “Movin’ Out,” and “Christie Lee” are separated semi-chronologically. “Allentown” and “We Didn’t Start Fire” – possibly the strangest, Ho Chi Minh-referencing song to hit the Billboard charts – only show up on the DVD.
My Lives is “ultimate” in the sense that nearly every phase of Joel’s career gets its due, but more than five hours of the piano man is an easy-listening overdose.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5