Billy Joel - "River of Dreams"

For a new album, Billy Joel could have easily sifted through his collection of unreleased songs and recorded a selection, purely as an exercise in topping up his already impressive bank balance. Thankfully, he did something else: he recorded a set of new songs and released one of his most challenging albums in years. On most of this album, Joel's famous keyboard playing takes a back seat to guitar and drums, which could be due to the presence of a new band and the production style of guitarist Dan Kortchmar.

The album opens with "No Man's Land", a stompy stab at consumerism. This rocker sets the tone of the album far better than the overladen pop of the first single. The urgency of this song continues through to "All About Soul", a song that would be just annoyingly catchy if not for its yearning vocals on the verses. The song "Shades of Grey" is notable for its distinct echoes of late sixties supergroup Cream. The album falters as Joel delivers a predictable and ordinary piano song ("Lullabye"), and is followed by the embarrassingly cute title track. He then returns to the rock sound, albeit half heartedly, with "Two Thousand Years" before slipping into the wistful "Famous Last Words", which closes the album as suitably as "No Man's Land" began it.

Joel's lyrics on this album are perhaps his most personal ever, and he has never sounded so unsure. The opening set of songs see him singing "there is no faith 'cause there's nothing to believe in", and "my faith is falling away/I'm not that sure anymore". In the following songs he falls back on the comfort of his wife and family and decides to be happy with what he has. He closes the album singing "these are the last words I have to it's time to put this book away/Ain't that the story of my life".

After the mixed bag that was "Storm Front", Joel waited four years before recording his next album. I have to admit that I was surprised at this album, as I expected just another batch of cute pop songs or formulaic rock songs. Here he has taken the rock style in both hands, embellished it with his melodic touch and crafted an album that is neither overdone or half hearted. Whilst it is no masterpiece, it is an album of considerable honesty and thought.

© David Gilliver 1993

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