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Happy 30th Anniversary, Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams!”

Thirty years ago today, Billy Joel released The River of Dreams – in what turned out to be his final studio album. While still in his forties, the album takes a maturely ruminative and barbed spin on such issues as relationships, loyalty, and love (stemming partly, perhaps, from Joel’s legal disputes with his former manager and ex-brother-in-law, Frank Weber, who reportedly embezzled millions of dollars from Joel and used dubious accounting practices to cover it up, and his marital issues with wife Christie Brinkley, who we would eventually divorce – and who painted the artwork on the album cover).

“There’s a song in [the Broadway musical] The Most Happy Fella called ‘I Like Everybody I’ve Met,'” Joel told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1993. “That was me – very serendipitous, happy-go-lucky, trusting everyone. I was burned before but shrugged it off. But this time, I lost faith in my own judgment: ‘Who am I to write about anything?’ I thought. ‘Who am I to tell people what’s right and wrong?'”

Those feelings bled into a set of songs whose protagonists found themselves grappling with – and often losing to – emotional turmoil, doubt and depression. A lot of Billy Joel’s early work could certainly be described as serious or even pensive, but there’s a noticeable dark streak running through the material that ended up on River of Dreams.

That’s particularly true over the first six tracks, as Joel vents about everything from suburban sprawl (album opener “No Man’s Land”) to personal betrayal (“The Great Wall of China”) to the increasing ambiguity of middle age (“Shades of Grey”). It isn’t until the seventh track, “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” that the record’s tension truly seems to let up and start to find a release.

Other obstacles stood in the way of the album’s creation – and perhaps also informed it. First, Billy Joel had to endure a series of false starts in the studio, including an aborted run at self-producing the record that ended when he hired Danny Kortchmar (whose previous credits included Don Henley’s first three solo albums) to take over. Moving the sessions into New York’s Hit Factory studio and jettisoning the remaining members of Joel’s longtime band in favor of a huge list of session players, Kortchmar took Joel’s dark night of the soul and helped mold it into a radio-ready collection.

Two other great tracks include the singles “All About Sooul” – a massively underrated bluesy-rock banger – and the gorgeous hymn to his daughter, “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel).” The song become the unofficial theme song of the New York Knicks during their run to the 1994 NBA Finals.

The album was, unsurprisingly a massive summer hit. And it was also nominated for four Grammys – for Album of the Year, and three major nominations for Joel’s title track (Pop Vocal, Record and Song of the Year).

Joel claims he recorded it with the idea that it would be his final album. In the years following its release, his marriage split up, and he announced his retirement from pop songwriting, spending years working on a series of classical compositions (eventually released in 2001 as Fantasies and Delusions) while settling into life as a sporadic touring act. He’d go on to release various non-album tracks, but River of Dreams – which concludes with the prophetic track “Famous Last Words” – remained Joel’s last collection of pop material.

Whatever personal pain led to this album’s creation, it’s certain this coda to Joel’s pop music career provides plenty of pleasure for listeners.