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Billy Joel Returns to Pop Spotlight With Moving, Wistful Piano Ballad ‘Turn the Lights Back On’: Listen

Like a warm, loving embrace from an old friend that bridges too long a gap, Billy Joel returned to the pop firmament on Thursday morning (Feb. 1) with his first new lyrical single in nearly 20 years, “Turn the Lights Back On.” The title says it all, as the wistful, swaying piano ballad feels like the continuation of an intimate conversation the Piano Man has been having with his fans for nearly six decades.

“Nothing is different, we’ve been here before/ Pacing these halls, trying to talk/ Over the silence,” Joel, 74, sings in strong voice over his familiar, warm piano playing. “And pride sticks out its tongue/ Laughs at the portrait/ That we’ve become/ Stuck in a frame, unable to change,” he continues in lines that hint at grappling with accepting ourselves as we are.

The song was produced by Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer Freddy Wexler (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande) and written by Joel, Wexler, Arthur Bacon and Wayne Hector. Joel will perform the song live for the first time at Sunday’s (Feb. 4) 2024 Grammy Awards, which will air on CBS at 8 p.m. ET.

“Turn the Lights Back On” is Joel’s first pop effort with lyrics since the release of 2007’s Sinatra-like ballad “All My Life,” which he wrote with his then-wife, Katie Lee; the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Singles Sales chart. Joel’s last album of all-new pop music was 1993’s River of Dreams.

The singer who has scored 33 top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, teased that he was coming out of his long pop hibernation during a Dec. 19 show amid his historic Madison Square Garden residency. “I have good news. I have bad news. I’ll give you the bad news first. We don’t have anything new to play for you,” he told the crowd. “The good news is you don’t have to sit through something you have no idea what it is. Although we’ve got a little something we’ve been working on you might hear sometime.” 

The swooning chorus of “Lights” pays tribute to time’s inexorable march, with a suggestion of regret at waiting too long to say, or do, the things we meant to, as Joel sings, “I’m late, but I’m here right now/ Though I used to be romantic/ I forgot somehow/ Time can make you blind/ But I see you now/ As we’re laying in the darkness/ Did I wait too long?/ To turn the lights back on.”

At press time there was still no word on whether “Lights” is a one-off or the signal of Joel’s return to releasing pop albums. In 2014, Joel told the New Yorker that he felt he’d said it all. “Some people think it’s because I’m lazy or I’m just being contrary,” he said. “But, no, I think it’s just — I’ve had my say. If I put out an album now, it would probably sell pretty well, because of who I am, but that’s no reason to do it. I’d want it to be good.”

However, in an earlier 2007 interview with Billboard, Joel left the door a bit more open. “I’m not ruling out the possibility of writing songs again,” he said a few months after the release of the “All My Life” single. “I suppose if I had the motivation to write a song, I’m not gonna stop myself from doing it. I just haven’t felt the compulsion to write songs in pop form. I guess these days I just think of myself as a composer.” His most recent album was a collection of his classical works, Fantasies & Delusions, which was released on Sony Classical in 2001.

While he has not released new pop albums, Joel has continued to perform his beloved hits on the road, which he will hit this spring and summer with old friend Stevie Nicks for a run of U.S. stadium shows.

Watch the lyric video for Joel’s “Turn the Lights Back On” below.

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