Billy Joel – Cold Spring Harbor (1971): Now you’re in the center of the stage

Rating: *** (out of five)

Billy Joel’s solo debut, which he released at the age of 22 after taking part in a few failed bands, is something of a mixed bag.

Compositionally, this is a 4-star album, showcasing a young songwriter coming into his own emotionally and poetically. Performance-wise, this is a 2-star album, with sonically flat recordings that feel oddly empty and cool. I decided the best way to reconcile this disparity is to give the album three stars.

For a solo debut album, it’s awfully concerned with endings; over half of the songs deal with ended or ending relationships. For example, Why Judy Why recollects a lost friendship that should have been something more.

In Falling of the Rain, Joel crafts a morbid allegory for his obsession with music inevitably dooming his chances at romance and human connection. The song succumbs to a forgettable melody and performance, but the sentiment in the lyrics would prove prophetic in later albums.

The greatest of the breakup-themed songs here is Everybody Loves You Now, the best track on the album and the lone performance with any spark of energy. Joel bitterly mocks a lover’s new found fame — “Just a little smile is all it takes / You can have your cake and eat it too” — as he predicts her downfall — “You know that nothing lasts forever / And it’s all been done before.”

Everybody Loves You Now is a success on multiple levels, from the Long Island specificity, to the cracks that show Joel’s lingering affection (“They all want your white body … But between you and me and the Staten Island Ferry / So do I”), to the fantastic piano backdrop, to the eerie prescience of the piece; he would enter “the center of the stage” himself within a couple years.

The closing two vocal tracks deal with conclusions in a broader sense: The final track, Got To Begin Again, bids adieu to a past era of his life, perhaps his early musical projects.

But the most fascinating and the darkest track on the album is Tomorrow is Today which chronicles the depression that pushed Joel to attempt suicide the previous year. “I’ve seen a lot of life and I’m damn sick of living it,” he observes as he describes the dreamlike emptiness that renders every day equally meaningless — “I don’t have to see tomorrow / ‘cause I saw it yesterday.”

The song delivers a bellowed, gospel-ish verse towards its middle that pushes Joel to an emotional edge. Those thirty seconds are the most compelling performance moment on the album aside from Everybody Loves You Now.

The best-remembered track off of Cold Spring Harbor is She’s Got a Way, which would later become a standard. The love song is thematically simpler than anything around it. While Joel would later illuminate this simplicity with an astonishing warmth in its famous live version, here the track feels sterile and slight.

She’s Got a Way and Everybody Loves You Now are the most enduring of these ten tracks because they lived on as some of Joel’s concert favorites. It’s a shame we never hear live renditions of Tomorrow Is Today or the catchy, McCartney-esque You Can Make Me Free — I want to hear richer, fuller renditions of these tracks.

As it stands, the bare and inconsistent takes on this album mar an otherwise compelling, if slightly inconsistent, work. Within a few years, Joel would improve his performances and raise his live gig to something that far surpassed all but his best studio versions.

This post is part of The Month of Billy Joel series.

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