Review Summary: River of Dreams successfully blends a menagerie of styles into an emotionally resonant work.
Maybe I'm biased because this was the first album I ever owned. Maybe I'm a sucker for the sentiment in songs like "All About Soul" and "Goodnight My Angel". Or maybe it's that I enjoy how each song is different from the last, how the collection spans across highs and lows of emotion, inspiration and power. Maybe it's the journey I feel like I've been through by the end of "Famous Last Words", as if I just traversed the Jungle of Doubt and the Valley of Fear to find myself back where I started, full of energy and passion from the way each song pinpoints some battle I've been through in my life and gives new meaning to things I'd long given up on.
River of Dreams has to be appreciated as a whole piece, since the full effect of all its components is more powerful than the significance of any single song. "No Man's Land" begins the album with metaphors about idea of the shortsighted faults of humanity, its pounding, urgent tone emphasizing the message in the lyrics. "Shades of Grey" is sung from the point of view of a soldier, addressing how easy it is to lose faith in what you're fighting for. The beautiful "All About Soul" brings the message to a more personal level, turning often-cliche ideas into a moving message about what really matters (And I ask her how she knew / to reach our for me at that moment / and she smiles because it's understood / there are no words to say.) "Two Thousand Years" follows in the same vein, Joel's passionate crooning reminding the listener to strive for the vision of a better world without forgetting what the past has taught us about humanity. Songs like these bring new life to old ideas, demanding reflection on values easily overlooked in the course of our busy lives. What more can you hope to find in an album from a poet like Joel than that?
Entertainment value, of course, and "River of Dreams" delivers here, too. Within its ten tracks you'll find solidly constructed and complex pieces from the piano ballad of "Goodnight My Angel" to "Shades of Grey", in which each instrument is played minimally but all come together to form a layered, undulating sound that belies the intricacy with which it is created. "The River of Dreams" is the most outstanding example, as tribal drums, piano, guitar, orchestra, and a chorus come together to create an epic background for Joel's story of his search for something he lost but cannot live without, a journey that every person who listens has undoubtedly undertaken at some point in his or her life, whether literally or metaphorically.
Whatever the reason I feel compelled to crown this as a timeless piece, I know that Billy Joel created something here that has defined who I am today, and something that I can turn back on if I ever lose my passion for chasing my dreams. This may just be a collection of poetry backed by music, but when it comes to pieces of art that can redefine your views on what really matters, "River of Dreams" reaches a plateau few albums touch.
No Man's Land
Shades of Grey
All About Soul
Goodnight, My Angel
The River of Dreams