Nick Paumgarten at The New Yorker has written a 10,000-word profile on legendary musician Billy Joel—a sweeping, vivid look at Joel’s personal history, the shaping of his career, and the man he is today. This year, “the Piano Man” became a resident at Madison Square Garden, playing sold-out shows every month—but he hasn’t put out a new album since 1993. Among the revelations in the piece is Joel’s candid, bitterness-free explanation of why he will never release another album: Mainly, he just doesn’t have anything new to say.
“Over the years, Elton [John] would say, ‘Why don’t you make more albums?’ And I’d say, ‘Why don’t you make less?’… Some people think it’s because I’m lazy or I’m just being contrary. But, no, I think it’s just—I’ve had my say.” Joel says when other artists continue to cash in on their name past their prime, the results aren’t pretty. “If I put out an album now, it would probably sell pretty well, because of who I am, but that’s no reason to do it. I’d want it to be good. And I’ve seen artists on that treadmill, putting out albums year after year, and the albums get worse and worse, less and less interesting, and it’s, like, maybe you should stop.”
Maybe most interesting and timely is Joel’s take on how fame distorts the reception of an artist’s music—something Taylor Swift knows a thing or two about. Joel remembers how the public pored over his River of Dreams lyrics in the wake of his divorce from Christie Brinkley, not unlike how Swift’s “Out of the Woods” prompted a frenzy of media speculation that the song is about her relationship with ex Harry Styles. “[I]t’s easier to write more personal stuff when you’re not as well known… You can’t create something that’s an independent entity, made out of whole cloth. They know who you’re in a relationship with, what your past is. They tend to draw their own conclusions. Your image becomes more powerful than the things you create.”
The last reason Joel declines to put out new music, though, is also the simplest: Joel, 65, isn’t up for the grueling hub-bub that goes into making a new album anymore. The guy has made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has 33 Top 40 hits under his belt (about twice as many as Bruce Springsteen, Paumgarten notes). Can you blame him for being content with his career?
“I’m not crazy about going into a recording studio and doing that kind of life again… Or taking on another project where there’s other people involved—arrangers and orchestrators and conductors and producers. I don’t want to deal with it. It’s a megillah. You have to have a certain amount of ambition to want to do all that. And I look back at the guy who was the recording artist, this Billy Joel guy, and I think, Who the f–k was that guy? He was very ambitious, very driven, and I don’t feel like that anymore.”