Looking at the numbers makes Billy Joel’s “retirement” all the more impressive. He truly went out at the top of his game, with River of Dreams selling more than 5 million copies and vying for an Album of the Year Grammy. To just hang it up after a success like that takes some guts.
When this album came out (in 1993), Alex and I went to the store and each bought a copy of the CD. This was in the days before iPods and easy CD burning, and several years before we’d get married and merge our CD collections. It’s hard to believe it’s been 16 years since I last purchased a Billy Joel album.
Listening to the whole album this week for the first time in years, it struck me as much stronger than I remembered it, though I’m a little turned off by the obvious lyrics of ‘2000 Years’ (“Why can’t we learn from all we’ve been through after two thousand years?”) and ‘No Man’s Land’ (“I see these children with their boredom and their vacant stares / God help us all if we’re to blame for their unanswered prayers”). Why is it that artists feel the need to reflect so directly on the state of the world as they get older? Those words sound like something the “angry young man” would have said before he gave up on his righteous rage.
But other tracks, such as ‘Blonde Over Blue,’ ‘A Minor Variation,’ ‘The Great Wall of China,’ ‘River of Dreams’ and ‘Famous Last Words’ have held up very well. ‘River of Dreams’ was a big hit that risks being overly sentimental but winds up sublime. And I love this little one-liner: “I’m not sure about a life after this / God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man.”
Listening to ‘Famous Last Words,’ the album’s final track and the last proper song Joel ever released, it seems as if he knew exactly what the future held in store… that he’d be cashing in his chips and getting out of the songwriting business:
It’s always hard to say goodbye
But now it’s time to put this book away
Ain’t that the story of my life
But the centerpiece of the album, and its strongest moment, is ‘Lullabye (Good Night, My Angel),’ which drifts sweetly into the title track. ‘Lullaby’ is a gorgeous and simple piano ballad written for his daughter, Alexa Ray. It’s hard to hear (or even read) without getting a lump in your throat… it’s one of the finest things he’s ever written.
Time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you’ve been asking me
I think you know what I’ve been trying to say
I promised I would never leave you
And you should always know
Wherever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away
Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
And like a boat out on the ocean
I’m rocking you to sleep
The water’s dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart
You’ll always be a part of me
Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me
Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on…
They never die
That’s how you and I will be
It is both sad and hard to believe that this album reflects the last words he had to say. In that last song, he hints that there “will be other words some other day.” Well….WE’RE WAITING!!!
I pretty much agree with your review of this album, although I may be a bit more forgiving of No Man’s Land because the music is kinda funky and shifts attention a bit from the didactic lyrics. 2000 Years is definitely the weak song on the album, not particularly helped by the musical breaks which sound (unintentionally I assume) way too much like “There’s A Hole In the Bucket”
I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t feature today’s song with the title track since they were intended to go together on the album. However, Lullaby can certainly stand alone.
Well, I suppose these are the last words we will have to say about Joel until he finally wakes up and realizes that his marriage is a fraud and he runs back into the loving arms of Phil Ramone and Liberty Devitto, loudly exclaiming, in the words of the Blues Brothers, “We’re getting the band back together!”
This song is achingly beautiful. It’s difficult to believe I heard it before I had a child of my own, as I can’t even remember hearing this song – or even reflecting on it – without picturing my own sweet angels. My guess is I just felt sad that his marriage was dissolving and he wanted to assure his daughter that their relationship wouldn’t dissolve with it. Powerful sentiments, to be sure.
While they’re some of the most obvious lyrics in the song, the lines “Someday your child may cry/ And if you sing this lullaby/ Then in your heart/ There will always be a part of me” have always evoked the strongest reaction in me. Something about looking at a child and being able to project decades into the future when that child will be a parent is such an overwhelming image. To wonder what you give your children that they will use in their own lives, that they will share with their own children… what a responsibility, what an opportunity.
I agree that whatever songs of relative worth might be on this album (and there are several), they pale in comparison to a song that has such a built-in draw. The fact that Joel served the concept so admirably just makes the song that much more effective.
(Now can we have a theme week of the runner-up songs from each of these albums? 😉 – please)
The ‘Hole in the Bucket’ thing has always amused me, too. And I do like ‘No Man’s Land’ as a song overall, despite some of the lyrics.
I don’t know this song, I’m glad you chose it because it’s just beautiful.