It's ironic that the angry young man of Turnstiles (1976) and The Stranger (1977), who frantically ran from the middle-class clichÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©s of his native Long Island, N.Y., should find himself nearly 20 years later contemplating the meaning of life along the sandy shores of — where else? — Long Island. Like rock & roll's own songwriting version of novelist John Cheever, Billy Joel is torn by commonplace doubts about his place in the world. With his 12th album of new songs, River of Dreams, he again asks the sort of sobering questions about committed love and parental responsibility that he first addressed on The Bridge (1986) and Storm Front (1989). But he raises the stakes with River of Dreams, diving further into the philosophical abyss of middle age with the fury of a dreamer searching for an answer before time fades away.
Whereas Storm Front sought fleeting epiphanies in Rome and Leningrad or within a shouted torrent of historical touchstones, River of Dreams finds the 44-year-old singer digging in the dirt of his own life with focused urgency. Although Joel often veils personal revelation beneath the moods and follies of his characters, River almost wholly abandons his array of confused romantics and smooth hustlers — revealing the stranger behind the mask.
Joel's voyage down his River of Dreams invokes a melancholy acceptance that everything can't be solved by a particular generation at a particular moment. Mortality, the decaying effect of time, has always haunted Joel, from the wistful days of ''Summer, Highland Falls'' to ''Pressure'' and ''This Is the Time.'' But rather than vainly idling as moments slip away, now Joel pushes forward with faith in the future, faith in love, faith in hard-earned, if frustrated, wisdom.
''From the mountains of faith/To a river so deep/I must be looking for something/Something sacred I lost,'' he admits in the title track. In ''Two Thousand Years'' he proffers a tentative solution: ''This is our moment/Here at the crossroads of time/We hope our children carry our dreams down the line.'' The legacy passed on, he asks his daughter on the beautiful ''Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)'' to ''dream how wonderful your life will be.''
Lullabies aside, Joel rattles his musical cages with a nastier edge. Like Storm Front, River of Dreams defines the rules of its game with muscular, guitar-driven tracks — courtesy of Danny Kortchmar (who also produced) and Tommy Byrnes — that shoulder Joel's aggressive, gritty vocals. But the attack eases with sly references to earlier musical styles. The superb ''Blonde Over Blue'' briefly dips into brazen chord structures reminiscent of Steely Dan to tighten its feel of sexual tension. ''Shades of Grey,'' with its bellowing vocal, toys with the heady pomposity of vintage Cream, and the passionate ''All About Soul'' struts coyly among sparks thrown off by Jackson Browne's ''Somebody's Baby,'' cheesy hand clap/synth riffs and a joyous ''na-na-na'' chorus. Regrettably, the arrangements often muffle the distinctive sound of Joel's acoustic piano — an unfortunate production choice.
Though River of Dreams doesn't conclude with any grand breakthrough or spiritual revelation — the last song, ''Famous Last Words,'' is only a temporary, restless farewell — Joel's jittery collection traces impressions of his journey of self-discovery. Throughout his career, Billy Joel has worried the stages of growing up — through women, children, fame, betrayal, money gained and lost, loneliness, moments of happiness. But as with any gifted artist, whether he finds that elusive inner peace isn't the point — it's the hellish searching for it that is ultimately so compelling.