“Big Shot” crashes out of the speakers, all snotty delivery and fingerpointing. “Honesty” is another one of his lovely classical pieces expanded into a pop song. What always kills is the way he stretches the word “on” neatly into the final chorus. “My Life” was drilled into the public consciousness by its use as the theme song for the sitcom that launched the career for future Oscar® winner Tom Hanks, though we’re still not sure why it sounds like he’s puking on the fade. “Zanzibar” is an incredibly complicated composition for a portrait of a twentysomething barfly—perhaps the protagonist of “Captain Jack” if he’d lived this long? This is the tune that fits the use of the trumpet on the album sleeve, with bop legend Freddie Hubbard taking the solo.
As before, side one is stacked with the hits, so side two presents hidden treasure for the casual album buyer. A slow piano with a smoky sax sets up the false intro for “Stiletto”, one of his more popular deep cuts. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” returns to the MOR lite jazz sound of the mid-‘70s; it’s notable to mention that “Rosalinda” is a variation on his mother’s name. The horn-heavy “Half A Mile Away” has some decent hooks, but overall it’s fairly slight. A harbinger of future works, however, appears in the big production behind “Until The Night”. Here is an overt Righteous Brothers homage at a time when they were in the “where are they now” file; his stellar, intricate vocal arrangement is spot-on, and the little touches in the arrangement (percussion, strings, etc.) show a dedication from students of the recording art form. (Righteous Brother Bill Medley would even record it himself a few years later.) It makes such a statement on the side that the title track comes off as something of an afterthought, but still well played.
52nd Street would have been welcome to anyone who’d already inhaled The Stranger—more of the same without being a complete retread. And that’s just what we demand of our pop stars.
Billy Joel 52nd Street (1978)—3½