River Of Dreams
Columbia Records, 1993
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/26/2005
I don't know why I don't listen to Billy Joel more. When people ask me who my favorite artists are, I rarely ever mention his name. And yet, when he comes on the radio or I play one of his albums, his music stands out. The Stranger, An Innocent Man, and Glass Houses are terrific albums, some of the best of the later 70's and early 80's. So before I gave River Of Dreams a first listen, I had high expectations.
River Of Dreams is the last pop/rock album Joel has recorded at this point in time. Since then, it's been a few tours with Elton John and a classical album, not to mention the Broadway show Movin' Out that is based on his songs. Looking at this record from a contextual standpoint, it's easy to see why it's the "last." With a few exceptions, most of the record sounds tired and uninspired.
But since it's a Joel album, it's guaranteed to have a few great numbers. The two true standouts here are the title track and "It's All About Soul." The former hearkens back to the 50's sound Joel captured on An Innocent Man. This is one of those songs that can make it on the lyrics well; one of the highlights of the album is the surreal images Joel presents. "All About Soul" is a more straightforward rock track. What makes the difference is that Joel sounds involved; he belts out the lyrics with gusto, backed by gospel singers. The "pick me up" nature of the track has led to its use for a lot of NBA games -- I swear, when the Bucks made the playoffs in '01, this played at the start of every fourth quarter.
"Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)" has always been a sentimental favorite of mind; the song is really quite touching, even more so to a parent, I would imagine. "No Man's Land" has a great opening keyboard riff, and another strong refrain. So now, let's tally up what we have so far. Two great tracks, and two average ones. What does that leave us with?
More so than anything else, Billy Joel has a very strong sense of melody. His best albums flow, and sound unique. Here on River Of Dreams, there isn't much of that. Tracks like "The Great Wall Of China" and "Shades Of Grey" sound stilted, and forced. "A Minor Variation," falls into a different set of problems. The track is supposed to be a bluesy effort, so it's naturally slower. Problem is, the song lacks a definite hook. I liked where it was going at first, but quickly grew disinterested. None of these tracks hooked me in and made me want to listen to the rest of the song.
Then we come to the final song, "Famous Last Words." Eerily prophetic to say the least; when one thinks about its implications, it gets quite depressing. Musically, I was reminded of an inferior "Allentown" or "Don't Ask Me Why." Given that Joel has not recorded anything since this album (he composed Fantasies And Delusions but didn't play on it), it's sad to hear Joel go out on this note. Compare this song to the medley that closes out Abbey Road. When you finish listening to that, it's fulfillment to the full extent of the word. It sounds like an end. "Famous Last Words" does not.
This record will be forever tied to Joel's destiny unless he relents and records another album. As final albums go, this is one of the weaker efforts I've heard, and certainly is not the masterwork Joel has the ability to record. I just want him to come out and prove me wrong, but it doesn't look like that will happen.