The Last Songwriter

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THE BOTTOM LINE: In a splendid set, the popmeister goes mopin', hopin' and doo-woppin' in no-man's-land.

In the middle of the night, he went walking in his sleep from the mountains of fame, through the valley of fear, the jungle of doubt and the desert of truth . . . to the river of dreams.

It's a familiar itinerary for ambitious singers of a certain age. At 44, Billy Joel has some lovely hardware: platinum albums and a shelfful of Grammys. He has a model wife (Christie Brinkley) and a daughter (Alexa, 7) worth crooning to sleep. Joel also has his share of bitter lawsuits, including one against his former father-in-law. So maybe he's got a right to sing some blues. He surely had the itch to write a song cycle; he is, after all, the last, finest heir to the songwriter tradition of soulful '60s pop.

The miracle deal is that River of Dreams works not just as a cohesive concept album but also as a bunch of damn fine songs with heart and hooks. Half-a-dozen singles, like the unavoidable, irresistible title track, could be playing for years on the jukebox in your head.

The story line, as spelled out on Side 1 (this is an album best appreciated on cassette or, gasp!, vinyl), is of a man on the emotional ledge. To brassily assonant music, he rages at a social landscape scarred by greed, fame % mongering, obsessive love -- all the strategies of self. He crankily attacks former friends in The Great Wall of China, life on the road ("In hell there's a big hotel/ Where the bar's just closed and the windows never open") in Blonde over Blue, his own no-account depression in A Minor Variation. By the fifth song, though, he takes refuge in middle-age ambiguity ("Black and white is how it should be,/ But shades of grey are the colors I see").

On Side 2, the man ponders continuity and eternity. As a husband, he sings All About Soul -- soul as primal music, as warm love, as a wisp of immortal spirit. As a father, he sings a lovely, McCartneyesque Lullabye that sounds like a dying man's goodbye. As an optimist, he prays that "we're on the verge of all things new" after Two Thousand Years. Both songs trust in children and art as the "vintage" of the next millennium.

Joel aims for the universal but smartly stays close to home. If Bruce Springsteen is the Jersey shore, Billy is Long Island, where the working class that fled Brooklyn stares stilettos at the moneyed folk who summer in the Hamptons. The album opens with the stinging No Man's Land, a rant anthem to the area's cultural deforestation ("Give us this day our daily discount- outlet merchandise,/ Raise up a multiplex and we will pay the sacrifice"), and closes with Famous Last Words, a snapshot of a resort town after Labor Day ("Nothing left for a dreamer now,/ Only one final serenade"). With vocal vigor and melodies that evoke the Beatles, the Kinks or Blood, Sweat and Tears but are tweaked to sound fresh, the piano man sells angst and redemption to the bar crowd. He's a hip pontificator -- the Boss with a higher IQ.

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