BILLY JOEL: THE BRIDGE (1986)
1) Running On Ice; 2) This Is The Time; 3) A Matter Of Trust; 4) Modern Woman; 5) Baby Grand; 6) Big Man On Mulberry Street; 7) Temptation; 8) Code Of Silence; 9) Getting Closer.
Once again, a pound of respect to be handed over to Billy Joel for recording a very-much-not-1986 album in 1986. With the dark star rising for the absolute majority of «rock veterans» that year, Billy Joel, of all people, could be expected to participate in the championship as a major contender. But while The Bridge does indeed show a significant drop-off in quality, lucky for Billy, by that time he had so much solidified in his «retro» mentality that a full embrace of all the trappings of 1986 was out of the question.
Yes, we do have some plastic synthesizers, some electronic drums, a bit of power ballad atmospherics, even a couple of Rambo-style pop metal riffs, but at the heart of it all we still have the same old Broadway show — a big ball of vaudeville and jazz-pop and old time balladry, lightly seasoned with some production elements that do land the album in the 1980s, but do not disqualify it as a victim of the 1980s. On an important sidenote, The Bridge marks the last time Billy worked with Phil Ramone, and it is clear that Phil was as adverse to submitting to those global suffocating trends as his regular client.
The opening number of the record is rather oddball, though: ʽRunning On Iceʼ is an unmistakable tribute to Sting and The Police circa 1979-80 (yes, even when Mr. Joel is emulating modern acts, he still can't help being a little retro with it!), with Liberty DeVitto impersonating Stewart Copeland and Billy himself adopting Sting's vocal modulation. The fussy, syncopated-paranoid verses could really be mistaken for a forgotten Police outtake — it is only when we get around to the happier-sounding ska chorus that a certain «it's really Billy» feeling starts creeping in, because The Police would never choose an ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ chord sequence for the hook. Still, as a homage, ʽRunning On Iceʼ is a great showcase for Billy's chameleonesque abilities, and in the overall context of the album, it probably packs more fun than any other number here.
After that deceptive opening, though, The Bridge slowly starts creaking and collapsing. The songs are not particularly awful, they are simply not too well written. Somehow, over those three years that separate the intentionally hook-laden Innocent Man from Joel's next public statement, the emphasis has shifted from «instrumental hook» to «soulful vocal expression», and too many of these songs focus on «Billy the passionate singer» rather than «Billy the creator of interesting piano and guitar melodic lines». Consequently, in order to like The Bridge, you have to really like Billy Joel as an artistic personality and a sensitive soul. And that can be tough.
The double faux-punch of ʽThis Is The Timeʼ and ʽA Matter Of Trustʼ, in particular, seems tremendously anticlimactic after the opening number. The former is an adult contemporary ballad with a Diane Warren-worthy chorus and probably the most dated production values on the entire album; the latter is one of those «steroid-muscular» pop songs, pinned to a boringly distorted pop-metal riff, that everybody was trying at the time, hoping to become Springsteen (including Springsteen himself) — in fact, Billy's epic-hero 1-2-3-4 count-off at the beginning is already enough to curdle fresh milk.
Eventually, as the artist begins going backwards in time, the atmosphere gets more tolerable. Stuff like ʽBaby Grandʼ, a soul duet with Ray Charles himself, and the big-band style ʽBig Man On Mulberry Streetʼ, is completely free of cringeworthy moments — the latter may be more atmosphere than melody, and the former may be way longer than its basic theme requires (actually, the basic theme probably requires some instrumental improvised parts, but Billy imprudently saved all of them up for the live shows), but stylistically, I'd say they are both beyond reproach, and, together with ʽRunning On Iceʼ, are the only songs on here worth remembering. The rest is a mixed bag of rootsiness, poppiness, and schmaltz that ranges from blandly forgettable (ʽGetting Closerʼ; ʽCode Of Silenceʼ, with wasted backing vocals from Cyndi Lauper) to overcooked in the vocal department (ʽTemptationʼ, with a bit too much heart on that sleeve, as if he were offering a little bit of it to every person in the arena).
Still, simply in recognition of the fact that this is, truly and verily, a 1986 Billy Joel album that sucks nowhere near as bad as a 1986 Billy Joel album could have sucked in a logically structured parallel world — I refrain from a thumbs down. The Bridge is well worth owning by any legit fan of Billy's, and well worth hearing at least once for anyone who is merely «tolerant» of the man. It is almost an objective fact that The Bridge marks the beginning of the slide, but we do have to admit that it was a slide like no other slide: unlike so many of his peers, Billy seems derailed not so much by the changing standards in recording and production, as he is by finally overrating himself as a «soul serenader».
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