Friday, August 2, 2013

Legitimate Modern Classics: River Of Dreams Holds Up!

The Good: Good musical diversity, Decent vocals, Some wonderful lyrics, Moments of politics
The Bad: Short, The songs that miss really miss.
The Basics: A smart and generally well-rounded album, River Of Dreams holds up beyond the radio hits the album spawned.

When it comes to modern recordings from influential musical artists over the past forty years, there are a number whose works are easily distilled down for the artist’s Greatest Hits album. When one takes the time to go back and listen to an artist’s whole repertoire (or most of it), there are very few whose works actually hold up beyond the hype of the moment or the few hits that make it onto the radio. In the case of Billy Joel, there are several albums which spawned at least four exceptional singles without having other memorable songs on the album. River Of Dreams is an exception to that. While the title track dominated the radio in 1993, none of the other singles truly landed and some of the other songs, like “The Great Wall Of China” actually holds up well beyond the stated concept of the song.

River Of Dreams was the last major release from Billy Joel and had it been his final original recording, it would have been an impressive exit from the public eye for Joel. As it is, it is a good album that has glimpses of greatness and manages to project more politics into Joel’s usually personal songwriting. While Joel goes for personal catharsis for his relationship with his business manager on “The Great Wall Of China,” the song holds up well as a personal allegory as well. In fact, the only tracks that truly fail to land are the simplistic ones, like “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel).”

With only ten songs, clocking out at 49:13, River Of Dreams is very much the work of Billy Joel. Joel wrote the words and music to all of the songs and he provides the lead vocals on each of the songs. As well, Joel provides instrumental accompaniment – usually piano, organ, or some variant of the same – on all of the songs. Joel produced “Shades Of Grey,” but otherwise the album is produced by Danny Kortchmar. It is still undeniably the creative vision and work of Billy Joel.

Musically, River Of Dreams is solid pop – save “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” – and it includes such memorable tunes as “All About Soul” and “The River Of Dreams.” The songs are more melancholy than Joel’s earlier works and none have the epic sound one might expect following his works on Stormfront, but the album is distinct in that almost all of the tracks sound different from one another, which is impressive given how the piano and organ are the dominant and consistent instruments on the album.

Vocally, Billy Joel has the same range he seems to always have had. He goes higher on the title track, goes lower on “All About Soul” and sounds somewhat strained on “The Great Wall Of China.” He is quiet and articulate on songs like “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” and “Famous Last Words.” “No Man’s Land” starts out the album with Joel singing clearly and forthrightly about industrialization and the scourge of consumerism and it works largely because his vocals are presented with little flourish and no obscuring the lines with production elements.

River Of Dreams is significant in that Joel sings some songs that are unabashedly political. While Joel publically tries to deny being liberal or pushing any sort of left of center agenda, his lyrics tell a different story on River Of Dreams. With lines like “There ain't much work out here in our consumer power base / No major industry, just miles and miles of parking space / This morning's paper says our neighbor's in a cocaine bust / Lots more to read about Lolita and suburban lust / Now we're gonna get the whole story” (“No Man’s Land”) Joel makes a bold statement about consumerism and the alienation desensitization of society today.

There are very few songs about relationships on River Of Dreams, but the ones that it does have are well-conceived. Joel has not lost his sense of poetics when he sings “There are people who have lost every trace of human kindness / There are many who have fallen, there are some who still survive / She comes to me at night and she tells me her desires / And she gives me all the love I need to keep my faith alive” (“All About Soul”). Joel makes the mundane in relationships seem fantastic and it works.

Joel also sings about uncommon topics on River Of Dreams. Billy Joel tackles religious intolerance on “Two Thousand Years.” The song simply details the progression of organized religion when he writes “In the beginning / There was the cold and the night / Prophets and angels gave us the fire and the light / Man was triumphant / Armed with the faith and the will / That even the darkest ages couldn't kill / Too many kingdoms / Too many flags on the field / So many battles, so many wounds to be healed / Time is relentless / Only true love perseveres / It's been a long time and now I'm with you / After two thousand years” (“Two Thousand Years”).

In the end, River Of Dreams manages not to be dated and most of the tracks are distinctive and interesting, which is more than can be said for the bulk of many artist’s works.

The best track is “The Great Wall Of China,” the low point is the unmemorable “Blonde Over Blue.”

For other Billy Joel reviews, please check out:
52nd Street
Glass Houses
The Nylon Curtain
An Innocent Man


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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