What the hell is this? A Billy Joel album in this ongoing A to Z of underappreciated albums? When I first started this series of reviews, I never imagined that of all of the acts that come under the letter J in my collection, it would be Billy Joel’s solo debut that would leap out as the most obscure album worthy of rediscovery. But Billy Joel? The man who blighted my early years with the horrible Innocent Man album and the recurring nightmare that is “Uptown Girl”. Why the hell have I even got one of his albums?
It hasn’t always been like this, as Billy Joel’s 70s output is actually of a reasonable quality and it still makes up the bulk of his set when he tours. It seems strange then that Joel has all but disowned his solo debut, as on reflection it’s actually one of his strongest albums. Listening to it now, it sounds for all the world like an obscure curio by a long forgotten singer songwriter whose one album disappeared without a trace. It’s almost unrecognisable as Billy Joel, as it’s filled with little gems largely performed solo at a piano with a subtle orchestral backing. To me it’s the clarity of the uncluttered piano playing that makes Cold Spring Harbor such an enjoyable listen. It tumbles, it shimmers, it perfectly compliments both the lyrics and the vocals. If you ever doubted Joel’s skill as a piano player, here is proof that at this stage in his career, he really did know what he was doing.
Opener “She’s Got a Way” is one of those songs that people would hail as a stone cold classic, that is, until they realise that it’s Billy Joel. I say forget every cliche you have in your head about Joel, because if it was any other performer, you’d just appreciate it as a piece of superior low-key balladry. Second track is more of a pop number, and by the time the up-tempo “Everybody Loves You Now”, if you didn’t know who this album was by, you couldn’t help but fall for it. Listen to “Falling of the Rain” without prejudice, and tell me it isn’t a great tune.
While there are no screamingly obvious singles on Cold Spring Harbor, “Everybody Love’s You Now” and “You Look so Good to Me” are a little more energetic than most of the material on this ballad-heavy collection. While the balladry can be a little heavy-handed at times, there’s not one song on this album that’s genuinely bad and there’s little that any fan of singer songwriters could criticize.
If you are a fan of 70s singer songwriters, but you have shied away from Billy Joel due to his later musical output, I urge you to give Cold Spring Harbor a try. If this was an album by an obscure artist, it’d be hailed as a lost classic that everyone should own.