Just like the man himself, "52nd Street" is obnoxious and overambitious but thoroughly lovable. After "The Stranger" found Billy flirting with the dark side of AM radio, he went after a streetwise blues & jazz sound with "52nd Street." He found it, sometimes.
But even when he missed and overshot, he created some great, lasting music. "Stiletto" has an irresistible groove and some impressive hellcat piano work, while "Rosalinda's Eyes" and "Half a Mile Away" find him approaching a maturity that carries his angry-young-man themes into a realistic setting. The set's centerpiece, the would-be epic "Zanzibar," is notable for its attempt to shoehorn streetwise romantic cliches into an insanely ambitious arrangement. Featuring trumpet solos by Freddie Hubbard and shifting movements, "Zanzibar" is one of the most entertaining and interesting failures you'll ever want to hear. Which means it isn't a failure at all, but a joyously ridiculous piece of music.
The album's standout, however, is the gorgeously layered "Until the Night." Billy's not the most lovey-dovey fellow, but "Until the Night" is one of the great love songs in history, a tough, unsentimental track that acknowledges how crucial it is to share love when times get difficult. The song aims high and scores even higher - it's a truly transcendent piece of work.
Hey, I'm a Billy Joel fan, so I'm gonna love most of what he does. "52nd Street" might be my favorite album of his. I'm aware that it's not perfect - but heck, who wants to hear a perfect album anyway? For all his forced tough-guy stances, for all his "I'm a white boy singing funky blues" pretense, he hit enough homers with this album to make anyone a true Billy believer.
Oh, and when I was a kid, I assumed verse two of "Zanzibar" really was about baseball.