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Popdose Flashback 1993: Billy Joel, “River Of Dreams”

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Dw Dunphy – Think about this. How bad might it be that, for a whole third of your career, your muse for your creations is permanently tied to them. Those who recognize you for what you’ve done will constantly bring this person up to you. You will be reminded every time you have to be involved with the work of that time of her?

Seriously, how bad would that suck?

Chris Holmes – Well I know that every time I mention Dave Coulier to Alanis Morissette she slaps me in the face, so yeah, it probably sucks a lot.

Billy_Joel_-_River_of_DreamsDw – Ouch.

Well, compound that by, oh a hundred, and you get River of Dreams by Billy Joel, the culmination of a period of his life seemingly devoted to Christie Brinkley. She even painted this album’s cover. So as he is up on the stage, delivering songs like “Tell Her About It” and “A Matter Of Trust” as his marriage is coming to an end, even the merchandising is reminding him of her.

This was probably not the best time to be Billy Joel.

River Of Dreams the album debuted in August 1993, and is so far the last full album of new pop music material Joel has released.

Chris – Ah yes, River of Dreams. Wherein a new genre is born: Alterna-Billy. Or maybe we can call it Adult ContempoBilly. Not a bad album, really, as long as you forget that this is the man responsible for 52nd Street.

Dw – It’s probably for the best that he hasn’t released any new albums since 1993. His heart doesn’t seem to be in it and he’s admitted as much. But more importantly, the thought of Billy writing a paean to his last wife (who was barely of drinking age at the time of their wedding) is beyond creepy.

8411149There are only a couple songs on the album I can take at face value: the delightfully creepy “Blond Over Blue,” “Famous Last Words” come to mind. I have uncomfortable past dealings with the title track, and so I can’t listen to it without it bringing up past errors of truly faulty romantic wiring…and I never need to hear “All About Soul” with backing vocals by Jeffrey Porkloin and the Technicolor Hairbrush.

Chris – There’s not one song on here I ever really latched onto, although the first three are far and away the best. I can’t really put my finger on what bothers me about River of Dreams. Billy’s kind of angry, which doesn’t help, but that’s OK. At least he was writing honestly. What really gets me, I think, is the production. Every bit of life was compressed out of this thing, as was the case for a lot of albums at the time.

It’s strange too, because by and large you couldn’t really point to many of his albums and say they sounded dated, so it’s not as if he was reacting against a lot of ’80s excess or something like that. And yet, this sounds like Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily two years before we even got Tigerlily. And for Brinkley’s sake, there are guitar solos on here. That I cannot look past.

Dw – I attribute that to his having worked with Mick (Foreigner) Jones not Mick (The Clash) Jones on the prior Storm Front album. Jones was a guitar guy, after all. When Billy moved on to River of Dreams without him, that process may have stuck around. Can’t say for sure, but I like guitar solos.

For myself, what is really missing is wordplay. At his best, Joel’s lyrics were extremely nimble. On here, it’s a lot of hammering down the usual nails. He’s not having fun with the language. It’s a far cry from The Nylon Curtain when you can tell he was just getting off on all the ways he could make a statement. This is just so plain…not direct. Just plain.

Chris – I could live with the decidedly more prosaic lyrics if the tunes were there. There really aren’t very many hooks to speak of. Shit all over “We Didn’t Start the Fire” all you want, but that’s a strong melody right there. I’d be OK with Billy scat singing every damn song if he had written something half as good as a lesser track from, say, An Innocent Man.

Dw – All true. Even the weakest song on Glass Houses has more mental “stickiness” than the majority of this album.

Getting back to the issue of Billy being confronted vividly by his past relationships through his songs, there is only one other person I can immediately think of that used his medium in such a manner…and a lot of people would still call me a blasphemer for it, but could you imagine if John Lennon had not reconciled with Yoko Ono? He would either have needed to revert to nothing but his Beatles songs, write a heck of a lot of new ones to compensate, or quit.

For Billy Joel, prior to Christie, it was more relationship music so either he started seriously considering the Attila Reunion Tour, write a catalog (probably) seriously bitter songs, or do what he ultimately did.

Dw – But I have a particular antipathy for “River of Dreams” the song. In the summer of 1993 I was 310 pounds and I was in what I thought was love. I had a crush on a girl, who for the sake of protecting identities I will call “Amy,” but my utter ineptitude with social skills that tend to bring the male and female closer together scuttled that…and that I was 310 pounds. That probably messed things up too.

How bad was I at this? My first approach to her was to send her a dozen yellow roses, or “friendship roses,” or “still really freaking creepy roses.” But because of my unabated shyness, I sent them anonymously. So, not only did I fail at the grand romantic statement, I did so with nary a hint of self-confidence. Huzzah!

We were co-workers, so that made it worse. But we were somewhat communicative so when this song was added to Muzak (a couple weeks before the album’s release) I made a huge deal out of buying the CD-single for her. She had said in passing she liked the song. Liked. Not, “I’m going to commit all my resources to getting this music because it will define me now and in my future.”

And, as you might expect, this effort went about as well as awkward misreadings tend to go. So when I listen to that song, and just about anything from that album, I am reminded of a most embarrassing time in my life.

What say you about that, Chris?

(No response.)

Dw – Chris?

(No response.)

Dw – Oh no, I’ve said too much. Damn you, Billy Joel. You did it to me again.

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