BILLY JOEL: RIVER OF DREAMS (1993)
1) No Man's Land; 2) The Great Wall Of China; 3) Blonde Over Blue; 4) A Minor Variation; 5) Shades Of Grey; 6) All About Soul; 7) Lullabye; 8) The River Of Dreams; 9) Two Thousand Years; 10) Famous Last Words.
Regardless of how one feels in general about Billy Joel, you must give the man his due: ʽFamous Last Wordsʼ, closing out this album, may not be particularly famous, but, up to date at least, they have really been «last». "That's the story of my life", the man tells us, "now it's time to put the book away", and, against all the predictably sneering «yeah rights», River Of Dreams remains the very last album of original pop compositions recorded by Billy Joel, the quintessential Sometimes Thinking Man's Artist of his generation. He gave his word, and he kept it. How often does that happen with public figures in general, let alone corny pop stars?
Even more curious is the fact that River Of Dreams has earned quite a shaky reputation, when it is actually not half-bad. Where Billy's previous two albums showed plenty of rot, as the man naturally drifted towards mushy adult contemporary and dumb «muscular pop-rockers», River Of Dreams actually sounds as if the man were trying to pull himself up, one last time. Like he did in the early 1980s, Billy goes against the grain and delivers a well-produced nostalgic album (California folk-rock veteran Danny Kortchmar comes on board as one of several co-producers) — not nostalgic enough to make us think it was really made in the Seventies, of course, but not at all in line with the mainstream pop values of 1993, either.
The word of the day is «stylistic diversity»: as a final gesture, Billy decided to revisit most of the styles that he used to excel in, and even throw in a couple new ones — the «dark horse of the family», this time around, is ʽShades Of Greyʼ, an unconcealed tribute to Cream (its opening and recurring «bap-pa pa-doo-wap-pas» are lifted directly from ʽSweet Wineʼ) that remains as Billy's one and only open foray into the area of blues-based psychedelic pop. It is not a great song, but it is catchy, a little bizarre, and features Leslie West of Mountain fame (the closest facsimile Billy could find of Cream's Clapton guitar) on a couple of colorfully scorching guitar solos.
Psychedelic notes are also apparent on ʽThe Great Wall Of Chinaʼ, whose floating strings sound like a cross between true Far Eastern sounds and the orchestral parts of ʽI Am The Walrusʼ — and form a nice contrast with the minimalistic «crunch chords» of the verses — and, to a lesser extent, in the darkly romantic falsetto of the chorus to ʽBlonde Over Blueʼ, although, in general, that song is more in the vein of the «midnight uptempo balladry» of Bryan Ferry or some other decadent crooner. Perhaps Billy does not quite have the vocal chops to do the song the way it deserves to be done, but at least he wrote it with good intentions.
Other than that, we got us our basic angry power-rock (ʽNo Man's Landʼ), some brass-adorned blues-rock (ʽA Minor Variationʼ), some working man soul-rock (ʽAll About Soulʼ), a solo piano ballad (ʽLullabyeʼ), a light choral spiritual (title track), a bombastic power ballad (ʽ2000 Yearsʼ), and those ʽFamous Last Wordsʼ that might just as well have been written by Danny Kortchmar himself, so much do they sound like a friendly early 1970s folk-rocker. Not too bad for a swan song, I'd say — even if, of course, the individual merits of all these tunes are quite different from each other: my own tastes push the indignation level ever higher when it comes to bombast, then bring it down together with the volume level, but with a selection like that, no two people will probably get to completely agree on the highlights and lowlights.
Lyrically, it's all the same old shit — some love stuff, some attempts at introspection, and lots and lots and lots of social criticism, this time, as Billy grows older, with a noticeable «grass was greener» angle to some of the songs, particularly ʽNo Man's Landʼ. All I'd like to say is that I really love the line about "give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise", which might just be the single best line ever penned by Billy Joel, the Daily Discount Man's Artist. Say what you will, Roger Waters can only dream about writing a line like that, can he?
That said, apart from the final track, the album does not properly feel like a swan song or musical testament; you'd have to cobble that impression together out of its stylistic diversity (an all-out binge for the big final!), its nostalgic components, maybe even out of its front sleeve painting (Christie Brinkley repaid her husband for ʽThat's Not Her Styleʼ by painting him almost in the guise of a Christian martyr — which did not prevent the latter-day saint and the mystery woman from separating one year later). But, contrary to rumors spread by reviewers who probably did not even listen properly to the songs, River Of Dreams was hardly a dishonorable way to go out of the songwriting business. As far as my own judgement goes, it was at least a definite improvement over Storm Front, to the extent that Billy would be justified to claim that he went out of the business not because his songwriting gift had run out, but before his songwriting gift would have run out. Consequently, I (a) give the album a thumbs up and (b) sincerely hope that Billy continues to keep his word and releases no more pop albums in the future. Just keep on touring those stadiums until they tear 'em all down, Mr. Joel!
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