Billy Joel suffered his share of hard knocks growing up and in the music business, but the focused sound of "Cold Spring Harbor" proves that those travails didn't keep him down. From top to bottom, this is a sparse, beautiful album that showcases a budding artist with loads of talent and an innate tenderness within a rough-and-tumble exterior. Melodically, Joel has few musical equals. If you like piano and you enjoy singing along to catchy songs that usually span three minutes or less, you'll love this album; it's as simple as that. Joel's voice and cheery melody on "You Can Make Me Free" sound like Paul McCartney at the top of his post-Beatles game, while the elegiac "Why Judy Why" a few songs later interestingly conjures a John Lennon aura.
Despite some influences here and there, Joel is a true original, and these songs are completely his own -- the high-flying keyboard work on tunes like "Everybody Loves You Now" and "Falling of the Rain" makes sure of that. Additionally, the true passion and musical complexities on "Cold Spring Harbor" are impressive. Halfway through "Tomorrow is Today," for instance, where the artist's severe depression is brought into the light, Joel belts out gospel-like lyrics and conveys a soulful vibe that blends wonderfully with the song's overall starkness. "Turn Around" and "You Look So Good to Me" are pop masterpieces, while the somber "Nocturne" captures elements early on of what the classically trained Joel would create on a classical piano CD many years later.
On the sober closer "Got to Begin Again," Joel reaches within himself to strive for personal renewal; there's an easy-going sound and straightforward message that resonates. Joel's instinctive ability to reinvent his music throughout the years shows just how deeply he cared about the song's theme. Future Joel albums would often feature more heft in the production, worldly subjects, lyrical cynicism and vocal ruggedness, but the pureness of "Cold Spring Harbor" shouldn't be overlooked among the Piano Man's catalog.