THERE'S no question about Billy Joel's musical creativity; the dead-end kid from Long Island has consistently proved that he can compose original songs, and his six albums to date have showcased some of the '70s' best pop tunes. But their appeal, and indeed much of what makes Joel an especially fine recording artist, is his personality which comes through in many of his songs.
From his earliest works, originating with the long, personal lamentations that characterized Piano Man to his recent conglomeration of more commercially oriented compositions on The Stranger, Joel has filled his songs with a rebellious spirit, a "New York state of mind," and the discontent of youthful passions, all of which energize his musical efforts.
He has grown from a shaky start with Cold Spring Harbor, his virtually unknown debut album, to the 1976 blockbuster, Turnstiles. Each album gave the music world fresh looks at life, love and people, all set to Joel's masterful keyboard compositions. Whether he was ridiculing the radical in "Angry Young Man," probing sentimentality in "You're My Home," or reminiscing about foolish teenage love in "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," Joel maintained a lyrical poignancy that hit home with both his listeners and his critics.
His was not the monothematic eulogizing of a Bruce Springsteen who forever relives the nights of fast cars, bright lights, teenage promiscuity and gang fights; it was the expression of a wandering spirit, probing amid the ruins of the past and picking out vital bits of history or emotion that translate into powerful music.
With his latest release, 52nd Street, Joel returns with more musical innovation. His melodies are innovative, catchy and--for the most part--lively. But slickness is the album's failing. A marketable brand of polish glosses over the raw power that has highlighted Billy Joel's past albums.
"Big Shot," the album's opening cut, is as angry and piercing a lyric as Joel has ever written, leaving no stone unturned in the world of jet-setters. But like "Movin Out" from The Stranger the words fall into a repetitive chorus set to a monotonous melody line which should make the song a radio favorite, though not one of the album's stronger cuts.
"Big Shot" closely resembles "Stilletto," the first song on side two and a tune which Joel energized triumphantly in concert. Once again this is angry Billy Joel taking the perplexing female of "She's Always a Woman" and surrounding her with a mood of sadomasochistic perversity to create a satisfied tormentor. "Stiletto" is a catchy song anchored at both ends by a simple Richie Cannatta sax line.
However, the two slow ballads from 52nd Street point up the peculiar failing of this album. Both songs work from the success of "Just the Way You Are," but neither is as sincere. "Honesty" is innocent enough, a sweet, simple melody which allows Joel to experiment with a soft vocal. But the song smacks of Elton John's "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word," and falls flat into a canned, pop sound.
"Rosalinda's Eyes," in contrast, is probably the album's most interesting musical conglomeration. Tying together a bouncy Latin percussion section with a smooth nylon string guitar part and an innovative soprano recorder solo, Joel cooks up a tonal recipe that would delight even the gourmet. But the song of the "crazy Latin" never fulfills the mood, wandering off into ineffective rhyme. With a cute Fender Rhodes carrying the tune, there are reminders of "James," but none of its lyric depth.
The current single, "Half a Mile Away," has a Chicago-like big brass sound and a steady rock beat, but again the lyrics about a delinquent night life are as commercial and inane as the sound itself--a departure from Joel's earlier music. "My Life" and "Zanzibar" also set shallow words to fine music. The former mixes bold, upbeat instrumentals with creative back-up vocals from Chicago's Peter Cetera and Donnie Decus. The latter experiments with some faint Latin rhythm and a few typical Steely Dan cliches, mixing in a fine jazz trumpet solo by Freddie Hubbard. It is the album's best mood piece, and possibly the most creative work on 52nd Street.
But the album's anchor, "Until the Night," encompasses all the shortcomings of this latest Billy Joel effort. The cut begins with a lackadaisical vocal set to a Phil Spector beat that suits Johnny Mathis more than Billy Joel. Though the song builds to a contrasting bridge and powerful crescendo, Joel is lost in the music, overshadowed by the mystery vocalist who solos the first two verses and dominates the choruses. The album lists no vocal credit. The listener leaves the song wondering where Billy Joel is hidden.
THE SPUNK of the quick parting shot, "52nd Street," confirms that Billy Joel is still full of life; but it is an unsatisfying end to an unsatisfying album. Joel said he wouldn't stagnate with the sound of The Stranger, and this latest album certainly represents a departure. But there is a loss of verve and expression here which disturbs the long-time Billy Joel fan. It's good music, but not up to Billy Joel quality. His success lies in the character that has pervaded his music, and on 52nd Street, we get it only in fleeting moments.