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We Look Back on Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” Because Dad Picked Me up at the Airport

“River of Dreams” was released on August 10, 1993, but The Hard Times is looking back at Billy Joel’s final studio album a few months prior to the 30th anniversary because my dad gave me a ride from the airport.

I got into Westchester Airport on Thursday night for my cousin Trevor’s wedding. In the car, “Big Mike” switched from 1010 WINS to the CD that has lived in the stereos of a 1992 Plymouth Voyager, a 1999 Dodge Caravan, and three Subaru Foresters.

In Billy Joel’s 12th outing, the “Angry Young Man” has reached a bitter, frustrated middle-age, ready to express himself in songs that are meticulously crafted, produced, and truly just fucking awful.

1. No Man’s Land
In the opening track of the quadruple platinum album, Joel attempts a Springsteen-esque rant against consumerism and the suburbs, but comes off like tryhard Huey Lewis yelling “Operator!” to a recorded phone menu. In exchange for getting a ride to this familial obligation, Dad has enlisted me to look at his phone, laptop, and Roku.

2. The Great Wall of China
At the time of recording, Joel filed lawsuits accusing both his lawyer/manager and ex-brother-in-law/manager of ripping him off. This song allegedly addresses these individuals and his subsequent loss of trust in a way that comes out cranky and goofy. To make conversation, my dad mentions that Trevor’s finance is loaded. He trails off repeating, “Must be nice” seven or eight times.

3. Blonde Over Blue
A song by a successful musician about how much he loves his supermodel wife. Yawn. By trying to be the romantic, the working man, the philosopher, and the showman all at once, he misses the mark on all of them. Dad makes sure to mention that Joel used to be married to Christie Brinkley and “Uptown Girl” was about her.

4. A Minor Variation
Another track rumored to be about the former friends who ripped him off. An effort at blues-tinged rock that just comes off as whiny. Also, I learned Mark, from the Hebrew School carpool, has his own escape room now.

5. Shades of Grey
An over-produced philosophical rock jam, which would be at home as a Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen B-side. The song is lyrically overstuffed, much like my boxes in the attic, which apparently I need to “clean out.”

6. All About Soul
This is a more straightforward tune about Christie Brinkley, who I am once again reminded was the subject of “Uptown Girl.” It’s probably the best song on the album, but again, a guy in his Hamptons mansion belting out an 11 o’clock number about his devotion to a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition Cover Model. And that Long Island choirboy singing about his version of “soul” backed by Color Me Badd was gross back then, radioactive now.

7. Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)
The album’s tone switches from impotent rage to enthusiastic expressions of faith. A very pretty song, but to borrow a joke structure from the era, “I liked it better when it was called ‘Golden Slumbers.’” Better to rip off the Beatles than another ham-fisted attempt at black music. I asked my Dad if ever sang me a lullaby. He snorted and said that was my mother’s job. Then I asked if he ever changed a diaper, he said it was a different time, jackass.

8. The River of Dreams
The title track hit number three on the singles charts, but it sounds and feels uncomfortable and forced. It’s a gospel “homage” which is just white musician for “appropriation.” To break the tension, Dad tells me that Uncle Sean used to sleepwalk when drunk and piss everywhere.

9. Two Thousand Years
This is a filler song on a filler album, employing ambiguous Christian imagery, unconvincingly trying to convince himself to have faith. One gets the feeling the writing of the song was sensitive and sincere, but somehow in recording it comes out canned, shallow, and cheesy.

10. Famous Last Words
A stumbling meta song, with lyrics about this being the last thing he’ll write mashed up with a clumsy metaphor comparing the end of summer to reaching middle age. It’s a footnote and will just be remembered solely for being his last studio record, but in a 60-year career, does that matter? “River of Dreams” debuted at number one and stayed for three weeks and earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. It doesn’t seem like he sold out, maybe he just is that corny, shallow, and mediocre, which makes him a true boomer icon.

1. No Man’s Land
We hit some traffic on the way to Poughkeepsie, so the album repeated and we barely talked, aside from mentioning that they made a TV version of “True Lies” and that “Uptown Girl” was indeed about “Christie Brinkley.”