After almost 20 years, the Piano Man, now dressed in an older man’s clothes, has returned to his famed metaphorical bar. The regular crowd of recluses and underdogs shuffle in, perhaps a little slower now, but still in the mood for a melody. And the man himself has obliged.
With a discography spanning more than 50 years, including 23 Grammy nominations and 33 Top 40 hits, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Billy Joel released a single for the first time in 17 years on Thursday.
When first listening to “Turn the Lights Back On,” it’s hard to guess the song was released in 2024 and not the late ‘70s. Joel’s vocals are just as strong as they were in “The Stranger” days, which makes the track’s solemn tone about the passage of time all the more meaningful.
A ballad emulating “She’s Always a Woman” and “Piano Man,” the raw emotion of “Turn the Lights Back On” transports the listener while simultaneously making them reflect on how much time has passed.
While the sound and feel of the single is immediately reminiscent of Joel’s ‘70s material, the lyrics could only be written today. The juxtaposition of his classic tone with a contemporary perspective and wisdom proves that Joel still knows how to hit the right keys after nearly two decades.
[Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony: UMD alumni have won them all]
Seventeen years is a significant period of time to not release new music — especially for someone as famous as Joel — but he never truly turned off the lights. His residency at Madison Square Garden held strong for 10 years, but will conclude this summer. The release of new content after so long is a stunning yet welcomed surprise.
With artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Joni Mitchell and recent EGOT-recipient Elton John all similarly returning to the stage to celebrate their discographies, both long-term fans and newcomers can appreciate iconic artists in a new light.
But are we asking too much of artists who have already given us so much? When does it become time to turn the lights off and never turn them on again? And what does this mean for the music industry today?
It may be that artists are using these comeback tours as a simple money grab, and that the music industry needs to let go of these guaranteed successes to take risks and give younger artists a shot. But it’s also heartwarming to see golden age artists receive their flowers years after the height of their careers.
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There has been a recent cultural boom of new performances and music from beloved artists of the 70s and 80s. Madonna is currently on her Celebration Tour. Mitchell will revisit her “Joni Jam” style concert at the Hollywood Bowl this October. These are all time greats, and it’s incredible that we get to experience new creations from treasured artists with such storied careers.
That’s why Joel’s new single comes at a perfect time. It serves as a reminder that he’s still here. He’s still, and will always be, the Piano Man.
Listening to Joel’s latest single feels like watching a movie about movie makers such as The Fabelmans or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He sings a song about his return to writing and performing new music, and the result is a masterpiece that takes the listener on a somehow cinematic ride.
Joel will be performing the single live for the first time this Sunday during the Grammy Awards.
“Turn the Lights Back On” is a sentimental and almost apologetic love letter to Joel’s loyal fans. It may be a slow song, but it’s still rock and roll to me.