Monday, March 18, 2013

Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel) by Billy Joel

Almost ten years ago, Billy Joel released his last pop album, River Of Dreams. In the eleven albums leading up to River Of Dreams, Joel created an astonishing catalog of popular music and left and unforgettable mark on popular music.

 Joel’s music grew out of his working class background and developed through the nostalgia he had of the 1960s, the cynicism of the 1970s and the complexities of the 1980s. When the 1990s hit, Joel’s artistic maturity hit a peak and we got some of his most powerful and personal works of his life.

Joel was no longer an angry young man or a piano lounge singer. He found himself in the 1990s a husband a father. To express this sentiment, he took a instrumental piano prelude that he developed into a Latin chant and turned it into one of the most famous lullabies in popular music.

Billy Joel often speaks of the influence of western classical art music on his compositions. This is very clear in this song with harmonies and piano writing that echoes the works of Beethoven and Chopin. He is writing in a monophonic style where most of the parts of moving together in the same rhythm as the harmonies progress.

Just listening to the piano part itself, it seems like an odd choice to put lullabye lyrics to it but this  juxtaposition really works. The formality in character of the piano part presents these words from the perspective of an older generation. Having these tender and intimate lyrics come from a voice which does not normally express such sentiment makes the song feel that much more special.

The lyrics demonstrate the struggle of parenthood. In the first verse, he’s not able to answer all of her questions. In the second verse, he’s left with so many more things he wants to say. In his child, Joel realizes what he doesn’t understand and what he can’t explain. Instead of focusing on this failure, he reassures his daughter of his love.

Joel writes lyrics that when you first hear them have a clear meaning. Then later, other lyrics make those previous words in retrospect mean something very different. In the first verse he promises, “no matter where you are, I never will be far away. “ This seems like a comforting reassurance to a child that isn’t necessarily true in the literal sense. Then later in the song he sings, “someday your child may cry and if you sing this lullaby . . . there will always be a part of me.” Joel ends the song acknowledge that he will be gone and it is in the lullabye that they will be together.

I have so many questions about life.  I know my son will have even more questions than I do, and there will probably be many times I will not have answers.  "Lullabye" reminds us that this is okay.  We don't have to always know what to say as long as we share our love with the angels in our lives.  

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