Billy Joel Susan Elliott - Essay

Susan Elliott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[How] does "52nd Street" sound? In a word, seasoned. There are a number of factors at play on this album, all of which seem to stem from Joel's own sense of artistic confidence. With that has come a new freedom of musical exploration, which, combined with the unshakable craft of producer Phil Ramone, has yielded a creative richness of the most thoroughly realized kind….

The material on "52nd Street" is a typical Joel potpourri, with this singer/songwriter emerging once again as one of the few whose output can be covered by any number of stylistically diverse artists. There are three ballads—Honesty, Until the Night, and Rosalinda's Eyes—and each seems to come from a different musical place…. Initially, his claim that he writes his melodies first seems to follow. But the lyric fits so beautifully and makes so much sense that it seems an impossible afterthought. Like She's Always a Woman and Just the Way You Are, Honesty reveals a capacity for rare insight and perception, not to mention for outright sincerity of delivery….

[Typical] is the album's opener, Big Shot, whose lyric combines elements of mafioso humor with references to contemporary New York City chic. (p. 122)

My Life, similar in subject matter to Movin' Out (from "The Stranger"), has one of the catchiest instrumental hooks you'll ever hear. Though the message is basically "leave me alone," this time it appears to come more from strength than bitterness….

Ramone remarked that Joel was "on a high roll" when they recorded "The Stranger" together, but to these ears "52nd Street" sounds even better. That must put him somewhere in the vicinity of the ionosphere. (p. 123)

Susan Elliott, "Billy Joel, Rock Star," in High Fidelity (copyright © by ABC Leisure Magazine, Inc.; all rights reserved; excerpted by permission), Vol. 29, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 122-23.