BILLY JOEL: 52ND STREET (1978)
1) Big Shot; 2) Honesty; 3) My Life; 4) Zanzibar; 5) Stiletto; 6) Rosalinda's Eyes; 7) Half A Mile Away; 8) Until The Night; 9) 52nd Street.
This follow-up to The Stranger does not seriously mess with the formula and even retains the same golden-egg-laying producer, but the general layout, nevertheless, has somewhat changed, possibly reflecting Billy's awareness of the market's increased demand for shorter, less ambitious musical pieces. To say that 52nd Street, in any way whatsoever, acknowledges the arrival of punk and New Wave, would be a tremendous overstatement (although I guess that the dirtiness of the wall on the album sleeve could be taken as «punkish», in some manner), but it does acknowledge the arrival of disco (ʽMy Lifeʼ), and the lack of multi-part suites like ʽScenes From An Italian Restaurantʼ is quite telling.
The album title formally refers to the location of both Billy's record label and the studio where the sessions were held, but, since 52nd Street is commonly known as the center of NYC's jazz life, 52nd Street is sometimes referred to as «Billy's jazzy album» — even though its seriously jazzy bits only come through every once in a while, most notably on Freddie Hubbard's flugelhorn and trumpet instrumental breaks on ʽZanzibarʼ. In reality, the album, like its predecessor, goes for an all-encompassing, diverse approach. There is no single theme or style that dominates over the others, but there are also no true standouts. It's just a solid Billy Joel record, by Billy Joel's own, not particularly demanding, standards.
The big hit single was ʽMy Lifeʼ — the disco song — and I have no idea why it was so big in the first place, but the keyboard riff at its melodic base is indeed quite catchy, and the arrangement is a bouncy fun generator, although Billy's lyrical message is once again much too overtly serious ("go ahead with your own life, leave me alone") to go along with the fun. Come on now, Mr. Joel! How come you can write funny music without learning how to be funny? How can we leave you alone when you are making millions on such an inadequate approach to art?...
The nearly-as-big hit was ʽBig Shotʼ, whose opening riff sounds decisively brutal before you understand that the man really nicked it from Ray Charles' ʽSticks And Stonesʼ. But that's all right, he put it to good use, as long as, once again, you manage to ignore the lyrics that viciously lambast some poor spoiled socialite victim of Joel's verbal cruelty (some have speculated about Bianca Jagger, no less) — and, speaking of Bianca Jagger, her soon-to-be-ex-husband would pretty soon treat her no less malignantly in ʽRespectableʼ, but the big difference is, Mick always had a perfectly clear sense of humor about such things (which showed up first and foremost in his theatrical-style delivery), whereas Billy here, and there, and everywhere, sounds deadpan serious, as if he really hates Halston dresses, Elaine's, and Dom Perignon (but in that case, how is it that he knows so much about all this stuff?). Anyway, like I said, ignore the lyrics, and the tune is a decent pop rocker with a slightly hard edge to it — no more, no less.
But enough with the hit singles, or I will have to say something about the ballad ʽHonestyʼ when I'd much rather talk about ʽZanzibarʼ, whose Steely Dan vibe with a light touch of mysticism seems to fare much better than Billy's «angry» songs. Freddie Hubbard's parts are indeed the obvious highlight, but there is something about the entire tune that makes it sound genuine. In fact, it seems as if Billy is always at his most natural when he's not doing much except sit at the bar — the closer he is to that particular stand, the more convincing his self-expression. "I've got a tab at Zanzibar, tonight that's where I'll be" — this is, like, the most believable statement on the entire album. No wonder Hubbard is being so enthusiastic with his support.
I also happen to like the quiet Latin ballad ʽRosalinda's Eyesʼ, with elements of jazz fusion woven in and a top-level chorus resolution (although I sure hope he'd find something less clichéd to rhyme the title with than "Cuban skies"), and ʽHalf A Mile Awayʼ, which is a blatant rip-off of Elton John circa ʽLove Lies Bleedingʼ, but a skilled one. The only true stinker on the entire record is ʽUntil The Nightʼ, a corny folk ballad that, for some reason, was awarded the dubious honor of the album's most bombastic style of production — not Phil Spector style, but rather a proto-power ballad style that could have easily influenced Bryan Adams. (Actually, Billy says the song was influenced by The Righteous Brothers... but why?).
In short, life is fairly routine, but diversified and relatively easy-going on 52nd Street. ʽZanzibarʼ, in particular, shows that Billy could have thrived, sucking on that Steely Dan vibe à la Aja; his mistake, the way I see it, was in putting just as much emphasis on his «hard rocker» and «anthemic balladeer» sides, where ambitions overwhelmed talent. Still, the album is pretty well-balanced between the relative highs and the relative lows, and I would even feel justified to mark it with another thumbs up — the difference with The Stranger is that the former took some risks that unexpectedly paid off, whereas this one hardly ever takes any, but it still pays off.
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