I singled out Streetlife Serenade as one of Joel’s weakest albums, but I’d have to give the dubious title of his worst record to 1989’s Storm Front. Released more than three years after The Bridge, Storm Front had none of that album’s musical or thematic complexity and, though it fared much better in the marketplace, it was a big step backward.
Opening track ‘That’s Not Her Style’ is an awkward defense of then-wife Christie Brinkley’s reputation (“The papers say… she chartered a Lear when she heard her career was in danger and gave the pilot somethin’ extra for a perfect ride… but that’s not her style”). Every time I hear it (especially in light of how things turned out for the couple) I can’t help but thinking the piano man doth protest too much.
‘I Go to Extremes’ and ‘Shameless’ were big hits (the former for Joel, the latter for Garth Brooks) but I find them depressingly generic. ‘Storm Front,’ ‘State of Grace’ and ‘When in Rome’ are forgettable — certainly nowhere close to the standards of Joel’s strongest work. And the album’s biggest hit, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ was a boon to high school history teachers but just plain weird to the rest of us. JFK, blown away… what else do you have to say, indeed?
That leaves the three songs on Storm Front that I do like. ‘Leningrad’ is a touching ballad inspired by a man Joel met on his trip to Moscow. It could be corny but it works. Joel compares his own childhood as a “Cold War kid” in New York to Viktor’s in a Soviet state then recounts how years later they met when Viktor (now a circus clown) made Joel’s daughter laugh (“We never knew what friends we had until we came to Leningrad”).
The album’s closer, ‘And So it Goes,’ is a lovely piano ballad about a fractured relationship.
That’s if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break
As lovely as the song is, I felt Joel cheapened it a bit years later when he revealed that it was written for Elle Macpherson, whom he dated when she was 19 and he was in his 30s. That confession seemed like a game of “Guess who I banged?!” and the song is better than that.
By far my favorite track on Storm Front is today’s selection, ‘The Downeaster Alexa.’ Sung from the perspective of a hard-luck fisherman, it features a great sound (love that accordion!) and one of Joel’s most passionate deliveries. It also name-drops Montauk, making it the first song of 326 featured on Meet Me In Montauk to boast that distinction.
[Note: Check out the cool Lost video I found to highlight this song… it’s so weird to see these Season One clips after finishing Season Five]
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound
I have charted a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound
We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner’s Bay
Like all the locals here I’ve had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone
So I could own my Downeaster “Alexa”
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can’t fall asleep
I’ve got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there’s fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren’t what they used to be
But I’ve got people back on land who count on me
So if you see my Downeaster “Alexa”
And if you work with the rod and the reel
Tell my wife I am trawling Atlantis
And I still have my hands on the wheel
Now I drive my Downeaster “Alexa”
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they tell me I can’t sell no stripers
And there’s no luck in swordfishing here.
I was a bayman like my father was before
Can’t make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain’t no island left for islanders like me