Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mellow Joel: Turnstiles Is A Short, Sweet, Album!

The Good: Decent vocals, Thematic concept/execution, Sounds good
The Bad: SHORT! Some forced lines
The Basics: Billy Joel’s fourth album, Turnstiles, may not have spawned a slew of hits, but it remains a pretty solid concept album with a decent execution.

As I continue through the works of Billy Joel, I’ve been finding that he is much like I always suspected John Mellencamp was for me (which I have, admittedly, not tested): an artist whose works I enjoy when I hear them on the radio, but I’m not really missing much by not listening to his full albums. Billy Joel is good, but the A&R people around him clearly knew what they were doing as there has yet to be a song on one of his albums I’ve heard and thought “Wow, they should have released this as a single!” Instead, until Turnstiles, the albums have been very well vetted for radio play with the best tracks.

Turnstiles, however, bucks that trend and I’m not sure it does so in an entirely good way. The album is a concept album (a journey from California to New York City) and any of the songs on it sound like they could have been singles (the most recognizable songs from the album are “New York State Of Mind” and “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”). The flipside of all of the songs sounding like they could have been fine as singles (though “James” would be a tough sell) is that none of them truly stand out and make the listener feel like they are hearing something truly exceptional. In other words, Turnstiles is solid conceptually, but nothing surprises or stands out. This is a mellow, but not indistinct, Billy Joel album.

With only eight songs and a running time of 36:48, the biggest strike against Turnstiles is that it is short. Even so, it represents one of the purest expressions of Billy Joel’s creative talents of any of his albums. Despite its brevity, Billy Joel remained in control of every key creative aspect of Turnstiles. Joel wrote all eight songs and he provides the lead vocals on all of the tracks. As well, Joel played the keyboards for all of the album’s songs, though he is backed up with his touring band for Turnstiles. The fact that Joel produced Turnstiles as well, makes it undeniable that Turnstiles is exactly the album Joel wanted to release for his fourth studio work.

Vocally, Turnstiles is exactly what one expects of Billy Joel. . . at least for his early works. His voice is in the higher registers than his later works. Given that almost all of the songs are slower, lounge-safe pace ballads, Joel illustrates some decent lung capacity, especially on the album’s opener “Say Goodbye To Hollywood.” He goes faster and articulate on “Angry Young Man,” presaging by decades his ability to credibly make something like “We Didn’t Start The Fire” vocally viable. But, most of the songs are soft, sweetly-delivered ballads that have Joel singing clearly and slowly to make every word heard and every line felt.

Instrumentally, the songs on Turnstiles are virtually the definition of “soft rock.” Piano and bass-driven, the songs are slower and the percussion is muted. Joel’s concept for Turnstiles is musically unimaginative, though none of the songs sound bad. Even though “Angry Young Man” does not grab me, the music that accompanies the lyrics is fine. The closest Joel gets to upbeat is “All You Wanna Do Is Dance” and while it might be comparatively up-tempo, it is not really danceable or fast.

The slower music and somnambular vocals fit most of the lyrical tone of Turnstiles well. On Turnstiles, Billy Joel presents a musical protagonist who is more fed up and exhausted than he is angry. Tired of the decadence of California, he returns to New York and the contemplative mood permeates the album. The songs have a pretty heavy philosophical bent to most of them. When Joel sings “So we'll argue and we'll compromise / And realize that nothing's ever changed / For all our mutual experience / Our separate conclusions are the same / Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity / Our reason coexists with our insanity / But we choose between reality and madness / It's either sadness or euphoria” (“Summer, Highland Falls”), we gather that he (or at least his musical protagonist) has come to something of an existential crisis and he is working through that.

In the process, Joel begins to belabor the time and place he wants to be. “New York State Of Mind” might be a fairly romantic piece of mood music, but objectively viewed, it is pretty weighed down by Joel’s need to sound authentic. The homesick song gets away with product placement and setting the stage with lines like “But I'm taking a Greyhound / On the Hudson River Line / I'm in a New York state of mind,” but seems backheavy when Joel laconically lists “It was so easy living day by day / Out of touch with the rhythm and blues / But now I need a little give and take / The New York Times, The Daily News” (“New York State Of Mind”). The song is good, but some of the lines seem a bit forced.

Similarly, “James” just sounds like a laundry list of complaints from the musical protagonist to the title character. Joel oscillates between lazy rhymes and not even trying to fit to a rhyme scheme as he musically states “James...we were always friends, / From our childhood days / And we made our plans, / And we had to go our seperate ways. / I went on the road / You pursued an education” (“James”) and the song seems somewhat redundant in advance of “Angry Young Man” which has a more universal statement.

Ultimately, though, Turnstiles is a solid album and a good one for setting a mood for a casual evening at home. Clearly illustrating Billy Joel’s talents, Turnstiles satisfies, even if it does not light the world on fire with its sound.

For other Billy Joel reviews, please check out:
Piano Man
52nd Street
Glass Houses
The Nylon Curtain
An Innocent Man
Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II
River Of Dreams


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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