Review Summary: Joel allows his music to mature and progress, resulting in his best album since The Stranger.
By the time Storm Front
had been released in 1989, Billy Joel had shown an impressive amount of ground covered for a pop/rock artist. That said, the aforementioned album didn't leave the best impression for what would follow for the Piano Man's twelfth studio effort. With four years bridging the gap between Storm Front
and what would become River of Dreams
, it was a slightly longer-than-usual wait for Joel's fans. And while Storm Front
at least improved upon the missteps found on The Bridge
, this wasn't nearly enough to make listeners expect much of its successor. But what we were eventually given would turn out to be Joel's best album in over 15 years.
Similar to how most of his works in the 80's were notable divergences from his first six studio releases, River of Dreams
differs notably from what Joel explored in the past. As of its release, this was his longest album (around 49 minutes), which is complimented by the more serious subject matter and themes. Right from the hard, thumping notes of "No Man's Land," it's clear that the album is far less sugarcoated than its last two predecessors. The only-slightly catchier "Shades of Grey" follows a similar hard rock road. Thankfully, these points show that Joel allowed his music to reflect a sense of maturity and retrospect through aging. This is on display the most in Joel's lyrics, which are some of the best he's written. Gone are the songs which seemed to be meant for holding a groove, packed a modest runtime. Instead, what Joel sings about here takes a more contemplative vibe. Arguably the two best songs on the album, "All About Soul" and "Two Thousand Years," are both serious expressions that sound and feel like humble, though still very impassioned retrospects.
Given this general change of tone and mood, one would likely expect the songs to follow a less catchy path. And it's true, you probably won't get songs like "The Great Wall of China" or even the beautiful "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" stuck in your head nearly as much as "Tell Her About It." The closest River of Dreams
comes to being what Joel used to demonstrate so prominently is within the soulful title track; which is perhaps the album's only light-hearted moment. Otherwise, we get what could be described as what Joel's most serious songs ("Leningrad," "Goodbye Saigon," "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," etc.) would be like if carried out for a whole album. The music still has a fair share of instruments played to fit whatever is expressed, but don't expect signature piano-playing much beyond "Two Thousand Years," the title track's enthusiastic solo and the aforementioned ballad. Naturally, this has led to quite a divide of verdicts for the album. While it might not spark strongly with more casual audiences, avid listeners will likely find this a release that has a lot to appreciate. And given how much material Joel has provided us, it's both inevitable and appropriate that he end his pop/rock career on this note.
River of Dreams
is truly a unique album. It feels like one that several long-time artists would think of doing, but never release. Where Joel's previous albums had a bit of an impending sense by detailing what one is facing, River of Dreams
is a release that seems to express what one goes through during and after a midlife crisis. The fun-filled vibe is in extremely short supply, but we're treated to something that shows true evolution in what Joel had released throughout his career. For anyone who's stuck with the PIano and/or his works for a notable period of time, this is worth experiencing more than most of what he's provided since the late 70's.