Friday, February 04, 2005

"River of Dreams" by Billy Joel

From the album River of Dreams

A simple song sometimes has the greatest impact; this is one of my favorite Billy Joel songs of all time. It begins with a low synthetic bass drum beat and electric piano outlining the basic verse structure while Billy improvises ooohs over the top. A chorus comes in to begin the back-up vocals ("in the middle of the..") and we're off into the first verse. The harmonic structure of the verses is only a I-I-IV-V progression repeated over and over again. The gospel choir background adds an air of a religious meeting, much like a preacher singing his testimony. The bridge is in the relative minor, with a stepwise progression (vi-V-IV-iii-IV-iii-ii-V) that rises to a half cadence before tumbling back into the verse. Slowly, Joel extends out the break between the bridge and the return to the verse, even to the point of eliminating all sound before triumphantly bringing back the verse riff. This adds a great amount of anticipation to return to that familiar I-I-IV-V progression. After the huge break, Joel returns to the verse, this time with a twist at the end, on the words "we're all carried along, by the river of dreams" his vocals reach up to a high B. This powerful edge seems to be his primal scream, adding a huge exclamation point to his "sermon". The final verses see Joel improvising his oooohs and falsetto ahhs over the chorus again, much like the beginning before fading into silence. The whole idea of the song, along with the gospel theme, gives it the air of a truly religious experience; and coming from an agnostic like Joel, gives this piece a considerable amount of depth to such a harmonicaaly simple song.


Scott Spiegelberg said...

Great observations! I prefer his earlier works, especially "New York State of Mind" and "Italian Restaurant," but I do like this piece as well.

John Styx said...

I agree with you, but this is the first album I remember really understanding what he was talking about and holds a special place for me. I love so many Billy Joel songs, it's impossible for me to pick my favorite, but this one has to be Top Ten