Artist: Billy Joel
Album: 52nd Street
Last month, I took a look at "Movin' Out," an uptempo rocker that was wholly representative of the "angry young man" category of songwriting that would help to define his career. I ignored the excellent ballads on The Stranger ("Just the Way You Are" and "She's Always a Woman") so I thought it was time to explore this other side of Joel's songwriting. Having hit so big with his 1977 effort, the stakes were high for 52nd Street and Joel proved he was up for the challenge with "Honesty."
If you're not a fan of schmaltz, then you may turn your nose at this choice—it's easy to be cynical in 2013 about a pop ballad written 35 years ago. And I'll admit the lyrics are nothing to write home about. But "Honesty" shows Joel has a real gift for melody and a penchant for incorporating the classical and jazz elements he studied as a kid taking piano lessons in his suburban New York childhood home.
The piece begins with a sad little opening, reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata or perhaps one of the minor-key Chopin preludes Barry Manilow was so fond of quoting in the mid-70s. But shortly after establishing Bb Minor, the song moves forward in the parallel Bb Major. I think this intro is kind of important for establishing the tone of the song. I always caution my students not to equate minor with sad and major with happy but this minor opening manages to establish a sense of pathos in a matter of seconds.
What follows is fairly standard in terms of melodic harmonization, but there is one transition I find really special. Throughout the verse, Joel gradually introduces chords from outside the key of Bb Major (Am in the second line, C and A Major in the third line). Finally, in the fourth line, on a rising melody meant to shepherd the listener to the chorus, he takes us even further outside the key (the chords are Eb-A-Dsus-D), while simultaneously reaching a melodic climax on the final word of the line:
What happens next is the moment that makes the song for me. Joel sustains the high D into the chorus to become the 7th of an Ebmaj7 chord, a deceptive resolution of the D major chord a semitone above. It's a simple idea but so effective in its execution. It puts us right back in the key of Bb (from which we were previously drifting) while rendering a climactic moment suitable for this early power ballad.
See you tomorrow in 1988!