Rating: 2 stars (out of five)
Though it’s not a very good album, Billy Joel’s 1973 pre-major label album (*) is intensely prophetic. It signals, in some way or another, every one of Joel’s strengths and weaknesses. You’ll never revisit more than a few of these tracks, but it provides a meaningful look into the development of one of America’s great music-makers.
(*) I think Cold Spring Harbor — though it’s his first solo album — works best when considered a precursor to his solo career instead of an actual debut. Piano Man, his next album and first major-label project, serves functionally as a debut.
Surely the first thing you’ll notice about Cold Spring Harbor is the faulty speeding, which not only shortens the song but raises the pitch up a few steps. The whole album has a “chipmunk” effect and a very flat sound. The album suffers as a result; the sound lacks richness and warmth that would be apparent in later recordings of these compositions.
Next, the production on these tracks is much more sparse than any of his other albums. A few tracks have some guitar or strings thrown in, but the majority of these songs are little more than piano, vocals, and a little bit of percussion.
Despite these unique properties, Harbor will be pretty recognizable to anyone familiar with Joel. Here are a few traits the album highlights:
- Effective piano work – This is a piano-heavy album, and Joel’s respect for the instrument’s power is evident. He crafts soundscapes (plinking in “Falling of the Rain”) and has a good knack for allowing the piano to take over at the right times.
- Pervasive loneliness – One underrated aspect of Joel’s catalog is its darkness. His reputation is that he’s the Piano Man, or the guy who sang “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” or the sugary balladeer. But most of his songs are about his own unhappiness and his doomed attempts to find contentment. Harbor has many interpretations of loneliness, from the sentimental (“Turn Around”), to the defeated (“Got to Begin Again”), to the downright scornful (“Everybody Loves You Now”).
- Brilliant, immediate hooks – You know those pop songs that are so immediately catchy that they get stuck in your head, but are strong enough to remain bearable years later? Half of Joel’s catalog are those songs. The only people who can really make a claim to writing pop melodies better than him are Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Brian Wilson. Harbor is one of Joel’s weakest albums, but it still has its gems (“You Can Make Me Free,” “She’s Got a Way,” “Everybody Love You Now”).
- Perceptive lyrics – Most forget his name when listing the great American lyricists, but Joel successfully blends lyrics that are specific enough to communicate they have personal meaning and profundity, but abstract enough to have global effectiveness. “Everybody Love You Now” is a great example: Comparisons between abandonment and cold harbor air are realized with enough emotion to be heartfelt. Yet, the despair of being forgotten by someone who has moved on to bigger and better things is something universal.
- Flexible vocals – Most rock writers and critics underrate Joel’s voice. He’s famous for his piano-playing, but it’s his assured voice that is his best instrument.
- Great lines – Here’s one of my favorites from “Everybody Loves You Now”:
Ah, they all want your white body
And they await your reply
Ah, but between you and me and the Staten Island Ferry
So do I
Much in the same way as it shows his strengths, Cold Spring Harbor also transmits a few of Joel’s recurring weaknesses:
- Unwise flirtation with artiness – Though he fancies himself the artiste, the further Joel strays from Tin Pan Alley, big-as-Broadway pop numbers, the more strained and weighed down he becomes. “Fallng of the Rain” is a little bit too into its sound-picture and forced symbols.
- The empty promise of smiling – I’ve noted that the darkness of Joel’s work is one of its big strengths, but I think everyone would like him a little bit more if he was more charming or – for lack of a better word – cool. If you ever watch or listen to one of his live performances, you’ll eventually realize that he’s not an endearing guy. It’s something of an irony that someone who writes such universal tunes turns so many people off with his demeanor.
- Filler. Ugh. – Nobody bats a thousand, but every Billy Joel album has a few tracks that are a step or two behind the rest. For example, “Why Judy Why” on Cold Spring Harbor.
- Questionable execution – He got better at this as he matured, but there were times during Joel’s career that his ability to translate a composition to a performance struggled. Later interpretations of early songs always seem like revelations at just how rock-solid his early writing was. “She’s Got a Way” is the best example — here, the texture borders on unsettling. In its world-famous live version, it’s warm and beautiful.
Billy Joel’s album is probably worth a free listen if you find some place streaming it or a friend who has the disc, but don’t bother paying for it. Just download “You Can Make Me Free,” “Everybody Loves You Now” and “Tomorrow Is Today” to get the highlights — the latter only for the bellowing breakdown in the final 20 seconds.