Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reconsider Me (maybe what Sir William was trying to write)

A couple of days back my partner here at Reason to Believe took a brilliant surgical look at of one of the more popular "love" songs of this past generation, Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are." Like Scott I too have always been perplexed by this odd and unsettling track that pretty much led the way to mass stardom on BJ's finest album, The Stranger.

As Scott said, there is something off here, with these lyrics that Billy wrote in 1977. It sounds like a straightforward love song, and Lord knows it's been treated as such by countless newlyweds at their weddings, but it isn't. It just isn't.

Here's the part that always irked me, at the song's bridge:

I need to know that you will always be
The same old someone that I knew
What will it take 'till you believe in me
The way that I believe in you

The word that pops to mind as the best one-word to describe this song is pretty much right there in that first line: "need." Because this song, above all else, is remarkably needy. It is so terribly insecure. Which, hey, is right as rain in so many pop songs. What is "Yesterday" if not needy? What is "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" What is, for that matter, "Hungry Heart" and a huge chunk of Bruce Springsteen's catalogue if not plainly, desperately needy? Not to mention the Holy Trinity of troubling 1980s desperation: "Every Breath You Take," "The One I Love" and "With or Without You."

Billy Joel could have gone for this, the desperate route that knows it's desperate. But he doesn't. And that's my problem with "Just The Way You Are." It's needy, but it doesn't want to be. It wants to be in control, completely in sync with what the object of his desire is all about and is looking for. Only it isn't. And as a result it's totally unreliable.

Think of some of the lines that come earlier in the song. Like this one:

Don't go trying some new fashion
Don't change the color of your hair
You always have my unspoken passion
Although I might not seem to care 

I don't want clever conversation
I never want to work that hard
I just want someone that I can talk to
I want you just the way you are

Nothing Joel has written earlier in the song (especially "although I might not seem to care") indicates to us that he does unconditionally believe in her. And yet that's exactly what he expects from her—"What will it take 'till you believe in me the way that I believe in you?" It's not true; it's simply inconsistent with everything else he's said in this song. And for the author of a love letter to demand one thing from a lover and not expect to give it in return? It's just not fair.

And this would all be fine if Billy Joel acknowledged his inconsistency here, and maybe attached a level of desperation to it. Which of course Isaac Hayes does in the extended, soulful version that Scott wrote about. But instead Billy just seems to want to play this out as a straight love song. He seems to think he's being sweet, when really he's being straight-out selfish. "I know I don't treat you right all the time. But I need—NEED—to know you still love me. I have no plans to prove this to you, but you have to reassure me. REASSURE me."

And it led me to this. Scott gave you the Late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington. I give you the even later Sir Warren Zevon of West Hollywoodshire.

And I give you the song that, I suspect, deep down Sir William may have been aiming for with "Just The Way You Are." I could be all wet, but this is how I hear it. Warren's lovely and regretful tune from his vaunted 1987 comeback album, Sentimental Hygiene

Here are the lyrics, which for a songwriter as challenging as Warren Zevon could often be are actually fairly straightforward:

If you're all alone, and you need someone
Call me up and I'll come running
Reconsider me
Reconsider me

If it's still the past that makes you doubt
Darling that was then and this is now
Reconsider me
Reconsider me

And I'll never make you sad again
'Cause I swear I've changed since then
And I promise I will never make you cry

Let's let bygones be forgotten
Reconsider me
Reconsider me

You can go and be
What you want to be
It'll be all right if we disagree

I'm the one who cares
And I hope you see
That I'm the one who loves you
Reconsider me

Let's let bygones be forgotten
Reconsider me
Reconsider me

And I'll never make you sad again
'Cause I swear I've changed since then
And I promise I will never make you cry

As I said, I'm not sure I am even in the ballpark here, but this seems to be the song that Billy was trying to write. Only he didn't.

There are a few similarities. Both eschew a traditional verse-chorus-verse setup and instead choose to punctuate each verse with the title of the song, rather than drop it into a repeated chorus. Both have a mid-tempo, pop feel to them. Both employ familiar structures of the eras in which they were produced. "Just the Way You Are" has that electric-piano, light jazzy sound so familiar with mid-70s pop songs, while "Reconsider Me" has that glossy 80s studio polish we've heard time and time again. Both are very much of their time.  

But with "Reconsider Me," Warren Zevon (or the narrator of the song) acknowledges how much he's screwed up in this relationship (it's right there in the title) and he's pleading for a second chance. He's not really making any excuses, and he's making it clear he'd rather forget all that old bad stuff and just move on. Which is not dissimilar to what Billy does.

And perhaps it's not fair to expect Billy Joel, who was in his 20s when he wrote "Just The Way You Are," to have the same level of self-realization that Zevon did at 40 when he wrote "Reconsider Me." That's important; writers need to have time to grow and mature into themselves. Could Bruce Springsteen have written "Tougher Than the Rest" at age 26, rather than age 38? Probably not.

Yet still, it's a failing in "Just the Way You Are" because the song is too contradictory for us to trust what the narrator is saying. To beat a tired and worn cliche into the ground, he wants to have his cake and eat it to. He wants unconditional approval from her, yet makes it clear there have been times and will be times when he's unable to give it in return. It's just too needy to be honest.

To the point where I can't help but think if Billy had written this one with the same sentiment in mind, the line "Reconsider me" would be replaced with, "But you still love me, right?"

Warren Zevon isn't seeking reassurance in "Reconsider Me." Earned or not, he's seeking a second chance, maybe a renewal. But in "Just the Way You Are," all I hear is Billy Joel seeking  reassurance. And it seems pretty clear from the words that he hasn't earned it.

No comments:

Post a Comment