If there was ever an artist that landed on his feet, it was Billy Joel. 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor was not only a commercial failure but it was actually mixed at the wrong speed. Two years later found him signed to the giant Columbia label, producing his breakthrough album.
While his first solo album had a number of high points, Piano Man would find a maturing Billy Joel beginning to writing the type of pop/rock that would eventually push him to the top of the charts and usher him into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. The melodies are solid, his vocals are improved, and the lyrics now have a sophistication that was missing in his prior work. The sound that would ultimately serve him so well in the years ahead was now in place.
The title track would become one of Joel's signature songs, its harmonica introduction is still instantly identifiable. This somewhat autobiographical tale of a bar entertainer would become his first hit single and Rolling Stone would rank it among the 500 greatest songs of all time.
“Piano Man” may have been a signature moment but “Captain Jack” probably saved his career. The song was written shortly after the release of Cold Spring Harbor and was a fixture of his live shows. It became a huge local hit in Philadelphia, catching the attention of Columbia label. To hear the full power of this song, though, you'll need to check out the live version contained on Songs In The Attic.
The third truly excellent song is “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid,” which uses a good if inaccurate tale of the American outlaw as a metaphor of his own life, its arrangement creating an ambiance of the Old West.
While the rest of the material cannot be compared to the brilliance of the three previously mentioned songs, there still remains a lot of listenable music. Like the title track, “Worst Comes To Worst” is another song about the life of a singer, but here it ventures closer to rock 'n' roll and contains more of a lyrical bite. “Ain’t No Crime” has a gospel and blues feel with wonderful harmonies in support. “Travelin’ Prayer” is very smooth country/pop and would foreshadow the polished feel of his future material.
Piano Man may not be his best album but, make no mistake, it is very good. It not only sets the stage for what would follow, but it als contains three songs as good as any he would produce. When exploring the music of Billy Joel, this is the place to start.