The Good: Good lyrics, Great vocal range
The Bad: Short, Instrumentally unimpressive
The Basics: A great entry album into the works of Billy Joel, 52nd Street still has enough to recommend it!
Today is a very exciting day for me (and the blog!); in addition to hitting a milestone in my music reviews (this is my 800th music review!), I have gotten to the point where I am now taking on new Artist Of The Month works! As many of my loyal readers know, I struck out on my own after years of writing for another website. After a number of hard lessons learned there, I opted to go solo and establish my own review blog (the very one you are reading right now!). Unwilling to let them keep my intellectual property, I removed my reviews from there and began moving them over to this new site (after reformatting them for my new protocols!). Well, I have finally exhausted all of my reviews of male musical artists and so I am now starting fresh with a new Male Artist Of The Month (when the female Artist Of The Month holdover reviews are exhausted, I will return to a single Artist Of The Month, but until then . . .) whose works I shall immerse myself in so long as the local supply hold out!
So, without any further fanfare, my first new Artist Of The Month in years is . . . Billy Joel! I am starting my exploration of Billy Joel’s music with the 1978 album 52nd Street. This album, Joel’s sixth studio album and it is notable in that it won two Grammy’s and was nominated for at least one other. Ironically, what gets it a solid recommendation from me is that one of the Grammy-nominated songs off the album is not included in the “Best Of” albums I already have kicking around from Joel. It seems somewhat ridiculous that if a song garnered praise, attention, and (I assume) airplay, it would not be part of such a compilation, but there you have it.
With only nine tracks clocking out at 40:28, one of the biggest issues with 52nd Street is that it is short (like so many recordings from around the same time). That aside, 52nd Street represents well the musical talents of Billy Joel. Joel wrote all nine tracks and he provides the piano and lead vocals on the entire album as well. In fact, the only main creative credit Joel does not take is that of producer. Given, however, that Joel was already fairly popular (his first Greatest Hits album is all tracks from the first five albums, so “fairly” might be an understatement!), it is hard to argue that he did not have quite a bit of say in the creative direction of the work or his career at the time.
Even after thirty years, 52nd Street remains a solid album. In terms of composition, it is a good mix of musical storysongs – “Big Shot,” “Zanzibar,” “Half A Mile Away” – and emotional ballads or statement songs (“Honesty,” “My Life,” “Until The Night”). Billy Joel seems very rooted in New York for 52nd Street, which makes quite a bit of sense (at the time, his studio was there), but the album tries to make bigger statements than just about the specific time and place. The yearning of “Honesty” is universal and the rebellious defiance of “My Life” makes it instantly accessible even now. Despite the seemingly autobiographical nature of many of the songs, Joel makes the album feel much more universal by presenting more universal themes.
What surprised me about 52nd Street was the vocals. Billy Joel is not someone who I have ever thought of as having amazing vocal range. And yet, on 52nd Street, he does. In fact, one of his most vocally impressive songs is “Until The Night.” On that song, Billy Joel starts out lower than his usual register and going almost falsetto for some of the song’s longest notes. It is impressive. While most of the time, he stays in a pretty safe mid-range, Billy Joel stretches himself vocally on 52nd Street. While almost every word can be perfectly heard, he varies his performances track by track to keep the album interesting to the ear. So, after growling through “Big Shot,” he is soft, emotive, and articulate on “Honesty.”
Musically, 52nd Street is all right, but nothing terribly audacious. Like much of Billy Joel’s works, 52nd Street is dominated by the piano and accompanied by bass, drums, and guitars. Unlike most of the music today, 52nd Street is not overly produced and Joel includes interesting supporting instruments like the saxophone and trumpets on tracks like “Until The Night” and “Zanzibar.” While much of the album is fresh, “Stiletto” still sounds like a David Bowie song.
Living up to his reputation, Billy Joel is an excellent poetic/musical writer on 52nd Street. He manages to write beautiful, heartfelt poetry without ever sounding cheesy on “Honesty” with lines like “You can have the love you need to live / But if you look for truthfulness / You might just as well be blind / It always seems to be so hard to give / Honesty is such a lonely word / Everyone is so untrue.” As far as making an uncommon statement well, it is hard to beat that in modern pop/rock!
As one might expect from Billy Joel, 52nd Street also has a number of musical storysongs. Joel creates musical protagonists who observe and comment on what is around them and on 52nd Street, those outings are an interesting mix of biting (“Big Shot”) and whimsical (“Rosalinda’s Eyes”). Joel provides a wonderful setting with strong imagery when he sings “Ali dances and the audience applauds / Though he’s bathed in sweat he hasn’t lost his style / Ali don’t you go downtown . . . I’m just another face at Zanzibar / But the waitress always serves a secret smile / She’s waiting out in Shantytown / She’s gonna pull the curtains down for me . . .” (“Zanzibar”). Billy Joel is good at creating a setting that intrigues listeners and on 52nd Street, he gets the club scene down pat.
While there are no bad rhymes on 52nd Street, some of the songs – like the title track – get repetitive sounding very fast. Even so, it is easy to see why Billy Joel’s 52nd Street remains a very celebrated album. It’s smooth, light, classic pop-rock that remains listenable and surprisingly fresh more than three decades after its original release!
The best track is “Honesty,” the low point is “52nd Street” which finishes off the album with something of a “ho-hum” feeling.
For other, former, Artist Of The Month selections, please visit my reviews of:
The Next Day - David Bowie
Working On A Dream - Bruce Springsteen
Hotter Than July - Stevie Wonder
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music reviews I have posted!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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