52nd Street

Billy Joel

CBS, 1978

http://www.billyjoel.com/

REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/09/2007

Why is it that Billy Joel’s albums always feel lopsided to me? The first half always seems to be much better than the second. Maybe he feels that nobody will have the patience to sit through an entire album from beginning to end? As if it’s better to have all the good songs up front to make the best first impression?

Well, if that’s the case, he slipped up just a bit with 52nd Street. The best song doesn’t come until No. 8, “Until The Night.” As the longest song on the album, it is a grand, sweeping epic and comes replete with a scorching sax solo and Billy making use of his lower register. It’s one of those songs that starts off slow and builds to an explosive climax. No doubt this was the song that won over voters when they selected 52nd Street as the Album Of The Year at the 1979 Grammy Awards. “Until The Night” should and could have been a hit single.

The other songs on Side Two don’t fare quite as well…in other words, it’s back to business as usual. A flute solo just doesn’t salvage the dopey and ridiculous sounding love song “Rosalinda’s Eyes.” If Billy was trying to capture a Cuban sound, he fails miserably. And then there’s the big and brassy sound of “Half A Mile Away,” which is where I ran to after hearing what sounded to be a carbon copy of the theme music to the Grammy Awards telecast -- I kid you not. Maybe that’s how this album won Album Of The Year. Hmmm…bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250

Another tiresome aspect of Billy Joel’s music is that far too many of his songs “tell a story.” I mean, if you have that many stories to tell, why didn’t you become a country singer? Then again, it is doubtful that a song dripping in sarcasm like “Big Shot” would ever translate to the country market.

My main complaint is that too many of Joel's songs share the same themes and sound identical to one another. I challenge anyone to tell the difference between “Big Shot,” “My Life” and “Movin’ Out" after hearing them for the first time. Hell, even the three photos of Billy Joel on the sleeve of 52nd Street are identical! We know you are a trained musician, Billy. You don’t need to pose with a trumpet to prove it.

I guess that’s why I prefer the Billy Joel of the 1980s, because at least he stretched himself into different types of music beyond the typical and predictable Piano Man persona. For example, “Pressure” from 1981 was a refreshing change of scenery coming from him, incorporating synths into his overall sound and achieving a real sense of tension and paranoia in the process. And who could forget 1989’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” with its rapid-fire lyrical delivery and clever history lesson. Also, Glass Houses proved that Billy could ride the New Wave with the best of them. That is the Joel album that should have won Album Of The Year, not this mediocre effort.

There are some other bright moments to be found on 52nd Street, however. Because of its straightforward simplicity, “Honesty” is one of Billy’s very best slow songs. “Stiletto” is a standout track that is a highlight of his live performances to this day. Complete with a memorable funky and frenetic piano riff, this finger-snapping ditty is essential listening for any aspiring musician.

This is one album that is best appreciated in the moment, meaning that it is largely forgettable after the fact. It’s among the most easily accessible and mainstream album of Billy Joel’s career, but it is far from the best.

 

Rating: C

User Rating: A-

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Comments

by cd4ever on February 22, 2011 11:44:28 AM
A baffling review, really. How anyone could think Big Shot sounds like My Life which sounds like Movin Out is beyond me. and yes, these songs tell stories. It's essentially a concept album exploring New York and it's various musuical syles and flavors and the going-ons there. A very good record to my ears with Rosalinda being the only misstep.

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© 2007 Michael R. Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of CBS, and is used for informational purposes only.