Sunday, November 20, 2016

Billy Joel - Turnstiles (1976)

Billy Joel's fourth album, Turnstiles, wasn't exactly a commercial success - its highest album chart position was in the triple digits - but it was the album on which he found his voice; his commercial breakthrough, The Stranger, couldn't exist without it.  Joel had just returned to the New York City area after having toiled in California, and on this record, he's relieved to be home.  Indeed, Turnstiles is both a love letter to New York and an ironic salutation to the LA lifestyle he left behind.  But it's more than that; it's also an album about moving on from youth, with middle age ahead over the horizon. 
From the brash Spectorian rock of the opening cut, "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," to the intense and somewhat terrifying "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," a churning number  imagining the destruction of his beloved Big Apple, Joel offers on Turnstiles (the very title implies change) some witty and personal insights on how his life has evolved. The music is a professionally played hodgepodge of styles, from progressive rock to straight pop, with touches of jazz and even some reggae, illustrating Joel's love for all forms of music.  He doesn't always strike a solid note - as always, he's better as a pop-rock singer-songwriter than as a straight rock and roller - but when his lyrics and his music are in sync, he manages to impress.
"Summer, Highland Falls" is a beautiful piano ballad about the possibilities and fears of dealing with the times, and "James," with its understated keyboards, is a sympathetic effort to connect to an old friend.  Joel finds himself growing up in an unstable world where he appreciates the smallest pleasures in life even as he ponders the ironies of being dissatisfied with larger ones, and he takes comfort in his new life in his old locale.  He has a tendency to overdramatize things - "Prelude/Angry Young Man" goes over the top with its sarcastic put-down of youthful rebellion and its excessive piano introduction, and "I've Loved These Days" is as excessive as the drink and drug culture it seeks to satirize - but  he's finding his voice and he knows where he's going with it.
To be honest, though, Turnstiles, for all its strengths as an album of a singer-songwriter coming into his own, won't impress you unless you're a die-hard Billy Joel fan; the casual fan should instead opt for The Stranger, where Joel perfected his artistic vision.  For the die-hards, however, perhaps the best reasons to own this album are the cheeky "All You Wanna Do Is Dance," with its lighthearted steel-drum-like sound (I don't know what those instruments are) and its somewhat flippant look at mid-seventies pop-cultural values, and the decidedly gorgeous "New York State Of Mind," a stately celebration of New York City (with a saxophone performance from Phil Woods that rivals his own tour de force on Steely Dan's "Doctor Wu" of a year earlier) that makes you (and Joel himself) wonder why he ever left.   
It's either sadness or euphoria . . . 

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