On The Bridge, his first LP of new material in three years, Billy Joel gracefully rounds off the latest — and richest — phase of his tempestuous career. The album essentially forms a trilogy with 1982’s outward-looking The Nylon Curtain and 1983’s backward-looking An Innocent Man, offering a modest yet moving portrait of a mature man battling the urban strains of the Eighties in search of both a separate peace and a sense of connection.
It’s tempting to read the new-found comfort Joel displays on The Bridge in personal terms — this is, after all, his first album since his marriage to Christie Brinkley and the birth of their child. His defensive cockiness has softened into a much more appealing confidence, and he’s abandoned the ambitious concepts he’s relied on to unify past LPs.
The danger of a biographical reading of The Bridge, however, is that Joel has historically been the least self-revealing of songwriters — a fact that’s caused him no end of problems with critics. Whereas most literate rock & roll trades on the romantic illusion of an artist sharing his deepest inner feelings with an audience of sympathetic souls, Joel has always defiantly — and sometimes arrogantly — kept his distance. His theatrical flair, fondness for classic song structure and penchant for styling his vocals to suit the characters he sings about all have roots in a tradition that stretches beyond rock & roll to the formal artifice of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. Where the masks leave off and the man begins is probably no easier for Joel himself to determine than it is for his listeners.
As he did on his 1977 LP The Stranger, Joel makes this dramatic tension part of The Bridge. “You swore to yourself a long time ago/There were some things that people never needed to know,” Joel sings on the edgy “Code of Silence,” the last song he wrote for The Bridge. As Cyndi Lauper — who earned the first co-writing credit in Joel’s career for helping him through the composer’s block that gripped him when he started to write the tune — wails in and out of the vocal harmony, Joel wonders, “Isn’t that a kind of madness/To be living by a code of silence/When you’ve really got a lot to say?” The message of emotional liberation in “Code of Silence” echoes the theme of the grinding guitar rocker “A Matter of Trust,” where Joel posits the virtue of trust as preventive medicine for the sort of love that “is just a lie of the soul/A constant battle for the ultimate state of control.”
A steady movement from polished rockers to full-blooded ballads sets the musical rhythm of The Bridge, while the lyric concerns of the LP fluctuate between the lust for control and the simultaneous desire to give it up and gain the sustaining warmth of love. In the elegant ballad “Temptation,” the singer weighs the demands of “business” and the opinions of friends (“They’re afraid that I’m losing my touch…. There’s a danger in wanting too much”) against the romance of family life. The frantic self-enclosure depicted in the LP’s opener, “Running on Ice,” where the racing pulse of Joel’s piano perfectly captures “city life anxiety,” is jolted into perspective by the swelling chorus of “This Is the Time,” with its reminder that amid the hubbub of urban days, life is passing:
This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever
These are the days
To hold on to
Cause we won’t
Although we’ll want to.
Both the male character intimidated by the upscale “Modern Woman” in the peppy single from the Ruthless People soundtrack and the touchingly affected hero of “Big Man on Mulberry Street” skirt the borders of self-awareness, realizing the trap their “old fashioned” attitudes have become but not fully prepared to give up the isolated safety they provide. And in the introverted “melancholy blues” of “Baby Grand,” Joel and Ray Charles, who turns in an impressively genuine performance, share a vocal and piano duet that dramatizes two veteran saloon entertainers reflecting on the music that is their solace in life.
The Bridge‘s culmination occurs in the rollicking “Getting Closer,” where Steve Winwood jams on organ as Joel concludes, “I have not lost faith/In the things I believe/And if I don’t have this all worked out/Still I’m getting closer, getting closer.” The tentativeness of this resolution, lifted into optimism by the song’s upbeat, Traffic-like swing, suggests an adult vision of life as a continuing quest for self-knowledge — a much less contentious and more satisfying view of the world than Joel has articulated in the past.
It’s appropriate that Joel has chosen to call this album The Bridge — a title that evokes both the emotional ties the LP stresses and the term for the musical passages that give songs their shape. The album’s formal simplicity allows its meanings to emerge in a natural, unpretentious way. The result is a smart, sophisticated collection of songs that seemingly brings us closer to Billy Joel than we’ve ever been before — and leaves us with a pleasant sense of expectation about the bridges we’ll be crossing with him in the future.