No ego mars Joel's songs of self

MUSIC REVIEW

August 10, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Autobiography has always been something of a dicey gambit for pop songwriters.

Tempting as it may seem to take Whitman at his word and sing an actual "Song of Myself," there's a certain risk in any celebration of self. Because whenever a writer turns his or her glance inward, there's a chance that what he or she sees will be of little interest to other people -- that instead of illuminating the human condition, their self-reflection only spotlights an oversized ego.

Worse, the odds against autobiography turning into meaningful entertainment seem to increase with the fame of the subject. You'd think it would be the other way around, that fame would somehow increase our interest in a pop musician's inner life. Instead, we usually end up snickering at the singer's grousing and self-pity, wondering how someone so small-minded could seem so large up there on the stage.

So when word came down that Billy Joel would spend most of his new album, "River of Dreams" (Columbia 53003, arriving in

stores today), wrestling his inner demons, some of us naturally expected the worst. After all, who wants to hear about how tough it is being a millionaire pop star married to a statuesque supermodel?

But "River of Dreams" isn't like that at all. It's not maudlin or self-pitying, nor does it try to convince us that a pop star's life is not a happy one. Instead, it focuses on more realistic emotions, like the love a father feels for his child or the anger and regret that follow's a friend's betrayal. Things, in other words, that mean as much to paupers as to pop stars.

Not that Joel pretends to be just an average guy -- we know too much about him for that. So when he sings in "Blonde Over Blue" of the woman whose love can lift him out of any depression, every People subscriber in America knows that the "blonde" in question is his wife, model Christie Brinkley. Likewise, when he rails against a former adviser in "Great Wall of China," you don't need to be a music biz insider to figure that he's really talking about ex-manager Frank Weber.

Even if you don't know, though, it doesn't make the songs any less effective. Because not only does Joel get to the emotional essence of each situation -- the point where specifics are almost immaterial -- but he wraps his words in some of the strongest, most melodically direct music he's written in years.

Start with "No Man's Land," the song that opens the album. On one level, it's typical Billy Joel, an angry rant in which our hero rails against a world rapidly going to hell -- in this case, courtesy of suburban development and consumer culture. But where once he might have simply sneered at the Volvo-driving commuters and their crummy condo developments, this tune finds him looking at the larger problem: The kids growing up in a place with no sense of community beyond the shopping mall and the cable grid.

"I see these children with their boredom and their vacant stares," he sings. "God help us all if we're to blame for their unanswered prayers." It's a powerful argument, and Joel does an admirable job articulating it. But what really puts the punch into this song is the way Joel paces his delivery, holding back from full-throttle rage until the final chorus, where his voice blends in with the clatter of percussion and the angry snarl of Leslie West's electric guitar.

Granted, it's the sort of device any competent arranger would have suggested, but Joel never draws our attention to it. Nor does he make a big deal of the album's other clever touches, like the way the Stax-style organ and horns on "A Minor Variation" link up with the lyric's suggestion that depression is "just a minor variation" on the blues (or, in this case, rhythm and blues).

Instead, the songs on "River of Dreams" cut right to the heart of what pop music is ultimately all about: Emotional expression. At their best, Joel's songs connect with the listener on a level that goes beyond celebrity factoids or intellectual analysis. It hardly matters if what he's trying to convey is as simple as the love-struck joy audible in the falsetto chorus to "Blonde Over Blue," or as complicated as polyrhythms bubbling beneath the soul-searching title tune; what matters is whether or not that music speaks to the listener's emotions.

For the most part, "River of Dreams" does exactly that, from the edgy acceptance of "Shades of Grey" to the paternal tenderness of "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)." Even better, it puts all that across in terms so tuneful and accessible that any listener with a working ear and an open mind will easily relate to his songs -- regardless of how much they know or care about his personal life.

Wouldn't it be great if all autobiographical pop worked that way?

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