Looking back on the Piano Man’s final pop album
Saying that Billy Joel has never been popular with critics is like saying Adolf Hitler has never been popular with Jews.
For reasons this writer has never understood, Joel has always been a whipping boy for critics. Some of them may genuinely dislike his work, others hate any music that is remotely commercial, still others probably dislike him because they think they’re supposed to dislike him. Whatever. Joel has sold more than 150 million records worldwide. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seven years later. He has collaborated and performed with everyone from Paul McCartney to Ray Charles and from Miley Cyrus to Elton John. He has won six Grammy Awards and scored 33 Top 40 hits.
But perhaps more important than any of this is that Joel’s music provided the soundtrack to millions of lives — particularly the lives of Americans in their 40s through the 70s. I myself can remember the first time I heard many of his signature songs. Back in the day, one of my friends and I would make a point of having our own listening session when Joel released a new album. Joel’s music — specifically his 1983 album An Innocent Man — was partly responsible for another friendship that I made as an exchange student in the 80s (he and I are still friends today!). I even remember attending one of Joel’s concerts with my family as a kid in Connecticut.
As hard as it is to believe, this month marks 30 years — yes, you read that correctly — since Billy Joel released his last proper studio album. River of Dreams arrived on August 10th, 1993. Let me put that in perspective. Piano Man, Joel’s Columbia Records debut, was released in late 1973. Not counting the 1971 independently released Cold Spring Harbor (a so-so album that was mastered at the wrong speed), this means that Joel’s entire recorded output came out between 1973 and 1993 — a 20-year period. It has now been 10 years longer than that since he released any new music! True, there have been a couple of compilations of his work as well as the 2001 classical foray, Fantasies and Delusions. But the days of Billy Joel releasing a new album of popular music are long gone.
Nonetheless, if River of Dreams was his swan song, Joel went out on top. To these ears, the album was a definite return to form after 1989’s disappointing Storm Front. That disc was somewhat overproduced (by Foreigner leader Mick Jones) and the material was probably more uneven than on any Joel album since 1974’s Streetlife Serenade. He didn’t have those problems on River of Dreams. Production this time around was by Danny Kortchmar, a ubiquitous producer and a good guitarist to boot. And if these 10 songs didn’t add up to Joel’s best studio effort, they came close. If River of Dreams hearkens back to one of his previous albums — both in terms of the subject matter and the sound — it would probably be 1982’s The Nylon Curtain. Both are well-produced, contain a number of mid-tempo, Beatlesque songs, and focus on themes ranging from suburbia to socioeconomic issues to life itself — with the occasional love song thrown in for good measure. Of course, 11 years separated The Nylon Curtain from River of Dreams. Joel was at a different point in both his career and in his life in 1993 (among other things, he’d recently become a father).
Another significant difference between the two albums involved the musicians. River of Dreams marked the first time in many years that Joel wasn’t supported by longstanding drummer Liberty DeVitto, bassist Doug Stegmeyer and guitarist David Browne. [While DeVitto and Browne continued with Joel through Storm Front, Stegmeyer departed after the previous album, The Bridge. He committed suicide in 1995.] One would think this lack of familiarity might have thrown Joel for a loop, but that’s not the case. He and Kortchmar assembled a very impressive group of musicians for River of Dreams. As usual, Joel sang lead and handled keyboards. Zachary Alford — who has also played with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to David Bowie — sat behind the drum kit for the majority of tracks. There were several bass players, but the main one was T.M. Stevens, a funk God who also served time with The Pretenders. And the guitarists were Kortchmar himself, Tommy Byrnes and the late, legendary Leslie West. Quite a roster there!
River of Dreams opens with “No Man’s Land,” a scathing critique of suburbia. The lyrics are peppered with references to multiplexes, Amy Fisher and “children with their boredom and their vacant stares.” [Bear in mind, cell phones weren’t a thing yet in 1993! Was that prescient or what?] “No Man’s Land” is a real rocker and a great opening track. From there, we head to “The Great Wall of China,” a catchy kiss-off to Joel’s former manager Frank Weber. Next up is “Blonde Over Blue.” This is a straight-up love song, no doubt about Christie Brinkley (who Joel was then married to and who drew the album’s cover art). It’s a good, if not great, song with a synthesizer intro cribbed directly from The Cars’ “Touch and Go.” After that is “A Minor Variation,” a bluesy mid-tempo song about mood swings (and a personal favorite). Side one ends on a strong note with the rocker “Shades of Grey.” Beyond some great guitar work from Tommy Byrnes, “Shades” boasts one of the record’s best lyrics. “Now with the wisdom of years/I try to reason things out,” sings Joel. “And the only people I fear/Are those who never have doubts.” It’s a sentiment that’s all too appropriate for the times we live in and one that echoes Joel’s great 1976 song “Angry Young Man.”
VIDEO: Billy Joel “All About Soul”
Side two of River of Dreams is, if anything, even more reflective than side one. It kicks off with “All About Soul,” a mid-tempo track and a moderate hit featuring Color Me Badd on backing vocals. Like “Blonde Over Blue,” this is another love song for Christie. But where that song worked, this one feels excessive. Joel’s vocal performance on “All About Soul,” to these ears, is over-dramatic. And at six minutes, the song is just too long. Fortunately, things get better. “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel),” which is up next, is a ballad dedicated to Joel’s young daughter, Alexa. In a sense, it works because it’s not excessive; it’s just Joel’s voice and piano accompanied by some tasteful strings.
From there, we move to the title track. “River of Dreams” (the song) was a well-deserved hit and is a centerpiece of sorts. It finds Joel pondering The Big Questions to a musical accompaniment that borders on Gospel. The idea of looking for something spiritual and intangible in the middle of the night is something many of us can relate to. And whether he intended it or not, the line “God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man” is priceless.
The final two songs on the album basically wrap things up and bid the listener goodbye. “Two Thousand Years” is a ballad that finds Joel anticipating the century’s end (in 1993, Y2K was still seven years off!). If I’m honest, it’s not one of the disc’s high points. “Two Thousand Years” isn’t awful, but it does feel dated. To wit:
“There will be miracles after the last war is won / Science and poetry rule in the new world to come / Prophets and angels gave us the power to see / What an amazing future there will be.”
I don’t entirely blame Joel for this misfire. How could he have known then about 9/11, Sandy Hook, Donald Trump, George Floyd and — perhaps most significantly — that we would experience a worldwide plague made worse by science deniers?
That brings us to the tenth and final song on River of Dreams, “Famous Last Words.” This one is a winner and a great note to go out on. For one thing, the song is well produced and catchy as Hell. And for another, the autumnal imagery in the song’s lyrics is lovely. “There’s comfort in my coffee cup and apples in the early fall/They’re pulling all the moorings up and gathering at the Legion Hall” is simple but evocative. And on that note, Billy Joel — the recording artist, at least — said goodbye.
VIDEO: Billy Joel “The River of Dreams”
That was 30 years ago. Since then, as noted above, Joel has released anthologies, live albums and one classical disc (which he composed but didn’t actually play). The standard line he gives journalists who ask him why there hasn’t been any new material is that he’s written plenty of new material — but it’s all classical music and it’s not for the public. And that may be true.
While I would love another Billy Joel album, I only want him to release one if he has something new to say. It’s not like he’s left music completely; he’s still a fairly prolific performer whose Madison Square Garden residency sells out routinely. And it’s not like there aren’t things to write about. The world has changed in 30 years — and so has Joel’s life. He’s weathered two divorces, health issues of his own and a suicide attempt by his daughter. But none of this has inspired any new music. So for now (and maybe forever), we have to content ourselves with The Piano Man’s back catalog. Hey — it’s a pretty amazing catalog!
And River of Dreams was a fine way to bow out.