“I know what I’m needing
And I don’t want to waste more time
I’m in a New York state of mind”-Billy Joel, New York State of Mind
Rating: ★★★★★ (out of 5)
There’s a beautiful scene near the end of the 2009 movie Adventureland in which Jesse Eisenberg takes a bus-ride to New York City, peering out of the window. He soaks in the bright lights and city sprawl, and it rejuvenates him after a summer spent cooped up in the dingy theme park he work at.
Turnstiles is a lot like that bus ride: It witnesses Joel’s departure from his brown, sparse west coast life to the dense, colorful comfort of his home state. In turn, he channels equally a Broadway flair and a towering, Born to Run sonic sprawl that leave in the dust his musty James Taylor/Elton John impression of his first three albums.
Four of the eight tracks reference either New York or his departure from California in their titles. He reminisces about his time away (I’ve Loved These Days) and notes that life is still not perfect (Summer, Highland Falls) but makes it clear that New York is where he wants and needs to be (New York State of Mind).
The second reason Turnstiles is a turning point for Joel’s recording career is that he, for the first time, used his touring band in the studio. It makes a world of difference; these tracks are energetic and moving over large stretches in a way that previous albums could achieve for fleeting moments or single tracks.
I’ll go over this a bit more when I discuss his live albums, but Joel has never received enough credit for being an excellent band leader and talent organizer. Joel’s live act never matched the notoriety of legends like Springsteen, but the talent of Joel’s act nearly matches the likes of the E-Street Band. Listen to Songs in the Attic and tell me otherwise. The group’s skill and synergy manifests itself brilliantly on Turnstiles.
There’s not a weak track among the eight here. From the opening Phil Spector impression to the closing piano fade-out, Turnstiles is varied and compelling. Beyond the more diverse inspirations that came from Joel’s change of scenery, this album benefits from Joel reaching a melodic and emotional peak in his writing craft.
A few prominent themes recur across these songs. One is the idea that life is spent in alternating extremes. “It’s either sadness or euphoria,” notes Summer, Highland Falls, one Joel’s greatest ballads. Say Goodbye to Hollywood observes that “life is a series of ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’ / I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”
As with Joel’s previous albums, maturity is another big topic here. But for the first time, we sense Joel may have done a bit of it himself. All You Wanna Do is Dance — another nearly forgotten gem — gently critiques someone who’s having too much damn innocent fun to grow up. There’s a tone of jealousy in the words.
Joel also straddles the line of maturity in Prelude/Angry Young Man. It works both as a self-skewering and a self-defense. There is certainly a bit of self-analysis when he describes the Angry Young Man in the third person, but he also takes the first person as he notes that “I believe I’ve passed the age / Of consciousness and righteous rage,” showing that he’s attempting to move beyond his angriest days (Piano Man/Cold Spring Harbor).
Another track that considers maturity is James, which sports the most forgettable melody here (though that is not much of a criticism). The song a letter to a former friend who gave up his musical career to face the real world. Joel remains skeptical that James made the correct decision: “Do what’s good for you or you’re not good for anybody.” This struggle between practical reality and youthful dreams would come to a head an album later.
The only song which doesn’t really contribute much to the album’s emotional complexity is the closing track, Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway), a bizarre apocalyptic tale of a concert that goes up flames. It’s silly but raucous enough in the right live setting to be an excellent listen..
Turnstiles was Joel’s most lyrically ambitious and successful album thus far in his career. Yet it’s the music, which matches the words point for point in improvement, that really steals the show.
One obvious highlight is Joel’s individual performance work. From the mind-melting 128th notes that start Prelude/Angry Young Man (he’s playing them and the accompanying piano notes by himself) to the sweeping beauty of New York State of Mind, Joel’s piano-work would never be better than it is here. His vocal work is excellent, too, conveying a variety of moods with expressiveness and strength.
The arrangements and performances are, in general, very strong. The biggest improvement from past albums is the drumming. Liberty DeVitto, a new addition who would remain a Joel stalwart, brings the tracks to life nearly as much as Joel’s piano does.
To pick a most impressive song, or even a short-list, on this album is challenging. New York State of Mind is one of the most enduring, virtuosic tributes to the Empire State ever recorded. But you can also make a strong case for Summer, Highland Falls as a perfect Joel ballad, Say Goodbye to Hollywood as a spine-tingling Spector (specifically, Be My Baby) tribute, and Prelude/Angry Young Man is Joel’s manifesto.
With the exception of New York State of Mind, Turnstiles rarely sees the love or radio play of Joel’s upcoming stretch of albums, but it marks the beginning of his creative peak and ranks among Joel’s finest works.