According to the documentary, Joel was on the precipice of being dropped by Columbia for the slack sales of his first four albums (although, unlike Bruce Springsteen, who found himself in a like situation, Joel was unawares). Knowing he needed an able producer, the piano man first talked with George Martin, who wanted to surround him with studio musicians. Phil Ramone, on the other hand, advocated using Joels band, which sealed the deal.
It may come as a surprise it did to me but The Stranger was recorded almost exclusively live in the studio, with Joel singing with the band (as opposed to dubbing vocals later). And although the production is built around a slick pop model, the vocals and playing sound lean and immediate. Suffice to say that the performances exude a palpable honesty.
Ultimately, The Stranger lives and dies with the songwriting. While Just the Way Your Are and Always a Woman sound a bit treacly these days, they remain prime examples of classic American balladry (the discs remaining ballad, Vienna, sounds fresh and vigorous.) Only the Good Die Young, Get it Right the First Time and Movin Out (Anthonys Song) retain their timeless exuberance. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant stands as one of the better multi-movement songs in pop annals. And The Stranger is about the closest Joel has ever come to profundity.
Theres a tendency with historic records such as this to apply some sort of unifying theme. I dont hear it. Billy Joel was a pop craftsman in the mold of the Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building tunesmiths who came before him. Each one of his songs stood on its own, and in the case of The Stranger, they stood very, very tall.