The River of Dreams is a puzzling sort of album. To be certain, it stands apart from any of Billy Joel’s previous records in a variety of fashions. For one, it must be said that the material presented on this collection seems to come from a place that is entirely unique from the singer’s past efforts. No longer is he the Piano Man, the Angry Young Man, or even the Innocent Man that the public once gravitated to. This is a Billy Joel record that comes directly from the middle-aged songwriter himself; and it sounds like it. What also makes this release distinctly prominent is that it remains the final full-length album in Joel’s career in pop music. Considering that it serves as a sort of bookend to an era, it would be inevitable that The River of Dreams might come under its fair share of scrutiny; and of course, it has. This leads us to one of the most identifiable traits that this record has obtained: the amount of critical backlash these factors managed to provoke.
While Billy Joel’s music never really attained much recognition from critics at the time, his latter-day records have absolutely received the harshest feedback of them all. It just so happens that River finds its place reserved at the very bottom of this category as well. I mentioned already that the songs presented in this package have the undeniable sound of a man finding his way through middle-age. This is worth noting because the idea of having the music operate as such an intense personal reflection was somewhat rare in Billy Joel’s work. While I don’t mean to imply that previous efforts did not originate from the singer’s experiences or views on life, it is apparent that these ideas had been typically expressed through the eyes of (mostly) fictional characters which Joel created or by effectively creating a character study through Joel’s perspective. Knowing this, it is interesting that this album is centrally focused on the introspective thoughts on the man himself, rather than stories he constructed to convey his thoughts. Personally, I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing per se if it was done right; however, when one considers the circumstances surrounding this release, it may have been the exact opposite of what people would have wanted to hear at that time.
It’s important to bear in mind that the era in which Mr. Joel released his final album was the early 1990s; the era of Grunge. If we consider that at this time most music critics were swept up in a storm of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins, then a new release by Billy Joel might have fell flat on its face no matter what the songs sounded like. Now, to be fair, I should point out that this is all merely speculation. I couldn’t say what any of these music critics or the general public might have been thinking at this time and I don’t pretend that I can. But honestly, try to put yourself in that position. A few years ago you just heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and with that, a wave of these young, abrasive kids began to take over pop culture. So if you were writing for a music magazine in the summer of 1993, would you really be all that thrilled to have the job of reviewing the latest album from the moody and aging Billy Joel? I suppose it’s possible. But if you ask me, I think it’s much more likely that everyone was waiting for In Utero to come out. But, I digress.
So it’s safe to say that The River of Dreams isn’t going to be a repeat of something like Glass Houses, but what is it going to be? In contrast to most of Joel’s work, the music here is strikingly bleak and pessimistic. The album opens with “No Man’s Land”, a driving rock number that contemplates the rise of industry and modernization while reflecting on the ultimate sacrifices that are inevitable when we become part of that way of life. Perhaps this isn’t an entirely unique avenue for a songwriter to explore, however what makes this song so enjoyable is the way in which the dark and introspective subject matter is paired with the strong melodic sense that we’ve come to expect from Joel. This becomes the overriding theme for the remainder of the music on this disc. The songs here can be described as weighty personal confessions set to minor-keys that are lifted back up and carried by clever, inescapable melodies.
Along with “No Man’s Land”, The River of Dreams had the privilege of bringing forth a number of single releases including the titular “River of Dreams”, “All About Soul”, and “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)”. Each song represents the album well in portraying Joel’s prowess and pop sensibilities while also keeping in line with the overall tone of the album. “River of Dreams” highlights what could be seen as one of the only sunny moments on the album with its Motown-inspired vocal melodies that will most likely stay stuck in one’s head for the remainder of their worldly existence. “All About Soul” feels much more grounded within the overall scope of the record in its tone and message. The song’s focus is on the struggle to keep love and intimacy alive within a relationship, but instead of coming off as a morose diary entry, the music and lyrics are surprisingly uplifting in its delivery. However, the most beautiful moment on the album is found in the last single released from this group of songs. “Lullaby” is a song written in response to Joel’s daughter Alexa after she had asked him “What happens when we die?” To paraphrase Mr. Joel from consequent interviews, the goal of the song was to try and answer this question while also reassuring her that despite the dissolution of his marriage to Alexa’s mother Christie Brinkley at the time, he would never leave her. “Some day we’ll all be gone, but lullabies go on and on” sings Joel in the song’s closing lines. “They never die, that’s how you and I will be.”
But even with great singles, an album is only as good as its lesser-known tracks, and The River of Dreams doesn’t fall short by this measure. In fact, it’s remarkable to note that the majority of the album-tracks found here sound like they would fit perfectly into the playlist on any self-respecting radio station. The two tracks that stick out particularly to me in this regard are “Shades of Grey” and “Blonde Over Blue”. It goes without saying that the heavy atmosphere carried through this record is not elevated at all with the inclusion of these tracks; however, each is doubtlessly an integral mechanism within the scope of the album. Another song that must be mentioned is “Famous Last Words”. As this happens to be that last track on what turned out to be the last full-length pop album by Mr. Joel AND it seems to directly address this theme of things coming to a close, the song proves to be understandably significant, if only for the fact that it has become so oddly prophetic. In truth, when one examines the entire song, it really seems to evoke themes relating to the singer’s crumbling marriage rather than his musical career, but it remains poignant in either regard. No matter what the initial thought that sparked the song, the message is as clear as ever: Though there may not be any bells tolling, no fantastic epiphanies, or any real resolution, there is the unmistakable sound of wheels coming to a halt. “These are the last words I have to say” expresses Joel “that’s why it took so long to write”.
With all of that being said, I can’t say that it’s very surprising that The River of Dreams wasn’t well received. Considering the subject matter, the overall tone, and the time period in which it was released, the critical response it received can almost be expected; and yet, I would still argue that these complaints are largely mistaken. Although I probably wouldn’t go as far as to call River Joel’s best album, it may likely be one of his most fascinating albums and it also remains the album (along with The Nylon Curtain) that I personally return to the most. Arguably, what makes Billy Joel’s final album stand out amongst his previous releases is that it is told from the point of view of a man who has entirely let his guard down. This is an album about brutal honesty.
What was it that Billy Joel once said about honesty…?
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: “No Man’s Land”, “Blonde Over Blue”, “Shades of Grey”, “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)”