When Billy Joel Gathered Up His Odds and Ends for ‘My Lives’ Box
Throughout his recording career, Billy Joel has insisted he isn't the sort of overly prolific artist who tends to leave a lot of leftover material lying around after he finishes an album, and long after he walked away from pop music with 1993's River of Dreams album, he maintained there really wasn't anything worth rescuing from his vaults — which made it something of a surprise when he put out My Lives, a career-spanning box rounded out with more than 20 previously unreleased tracks.
The five-disc collection, which arrived in stores Nov. 22, 2005, took an odd hybrid approach to purging Joel's non-album material. Presumably due to the fact that his hits had already been well covered with a series of existing best-of packages, My Lives mostly ignored the album versions of his Top 40 singles — but since he didn't have enough leftovers to fill a box on their own, the gaps were filled with a handful of deep cuts.
The result formed a sort of loose survey of Joel's less-commercial side while opening a window into his creative process via the inclusion of demos that, in many cases, evolved into some of his best-loved songs.
Of those demos, many of which had been bootlegged among fans for years, it was difficult not to admit Joel really hadn't been overly modest when he said he didn't have any non-album material that needed releasing. For hardcore fans, it was certainly interesting to hear proper masters of long-lost songs like "Oyster Bay" and "Cross to Bear," just as it was instructive to hear "The Longest Time" in its early form as "The Prime of Your Life," or listen to "New Mexico" before it became "Worst Comes to Worst" — but navigating around well-known cuts like "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me" and "An Innocent Man" to get to them was enough to leave a listener feeling like the victim of a cash grab.
In Joel's limited defense, My Lives is just one of many post-River of Dreams releases that he's claimed have been mandated by a contract that doesn't require his approval for regularly required product, and it isn't as though he was out beating the publicity drum to try and convince fans to buy the box. Then again, he didn't need to — after more than a dozen years without a pop album from him, Joel's hardcore faithful could hardly resist the temptation of hearing something new — even if it wasn't really new.
Listen to Billy Joel's 'Prime of Your Life' Demo
All in all, My Lives offered a pleasant, albeit deeply flawed, place to find most of the non-album ephemera Joel had gathered over his decades as a recording artist, including his early days as a member of the Lost Souls, the Hassles, and Attila. Long-orphaned B-sides like "Elvis Presley Blvd." and "House of Blue Light" finally had an official home of sorts, along with the odd compilation cut like "Nobody Knows But Me" (from 1982's kid-friendly In Harmony 2) and his cover of "All Shook Up" (from the soundtrack to the 1992 comedy Honeymoon in Vegas).
Still, like a lot of heavily reissued artists, Joel's compilation years are as notable for the stuff that's remained unreleased as they are for the hidden treasures they've unearthed, and My Lives is a good example of a decent effort that might have been truly satisfying.
In fact, even though this box swept most of Joel's crumbs into an attractive package, it isn't hard to find other studio material that could just as easily have made the cut, as well as any number of live performances that would have been more appealing for the sort of longtime fans likely to pony up for an odds 'n' sods box.
Of course, as labels have learned repeatedly during the reissue era, as much as consumers might grumble about being asked to repurchase old material for the privilege of hearing a little something new, they'll still keep lining up to buy repackaged recordings, and Joel's fans are bound to be offered plenty of opportunities to delve even deeper into his live and studio archives — even if they'll have to make room for new copies of stuff they already own in the process.