This album hit while I was in 8th grade. I had grown up with Billy Joel, and not just as a casual fan of the hits. The deeper cuts are the core of his career, and showcase more of his innovations and experiments.
I was enthralled with this album when it first came out. I was impressed with how hard rocking tracks like Shades of Grey were, or the cutting-edge sound of Blonde Over Blue.
I watched a PBS special on the making of this album (which I have on VHS, but I don't see it listed on Amazon) which covered some interesting aspects of the album. First of all, this is a different drummer, and a different producer, than Billy usually worked with. This explains a lot. While Liberty's drums were spectacular, the drumming here is a little different. It feels solid, and there are some good grooves, but it doesn't sound as collaborative as his earlier albums did. The tracks are wound tightly, and there isn't as much room for moments that feel less planned, and more natural.
The second big difference is the mixing. If you listen to the alternate version of River of Dreams from the My Lives box set, you get a much more natural sounding performance. Joel is having a good time. That rhythm guitar is louder, and it glues everything together.
That's not to say that the album as it is, is bad.
As an adult, I still enjoy this album, but not in the same way that I used to.
I still don't like No Man's Land, but I think I get the idea. Sometimes, Billy likes to play a rock song on guitar. He did this with A Matter of Trust, and I respect that. I love that he's willing to do this sort of thing. But something about the track isn't right, and it never felt like the right album opener.
I still like The Great Wall of China, with the wonderful harmonies to kick it off. Blonde Over Blue is uniquely memorable, and the drumming is great.
Occasionally, Joel likes to toss in a blues song, but I don't feel like they've been natural since 52nd Street. A Minor Variation isn't up to that par, but it's not objectionable.
Shades of Grey isn't as tough a rocker as I remembered it, but it still plays well. It seems a little like a companion piece to Storm Front's I Go To Extremes.
I didn't like All About Soul as a kid. It felt like it went on way too long, and that it didn't have the same sense of melody as his other work. I like it a bit more as an adult. I think it felt like his version of Hey Jude - an easy crowd singalong.
Lullabye is nice, but there's something I don't like when a personal statement like this turns into popular fodder for a capella groups.
River of Dreams is obviously the highlight of the album. The mix is the real star on the track though. It smooths everything out, making everything flow seamlessly. When you hear the song live, or hear the alternate mix, you'll understand how unique this mix is.
Two Thousand Years and Famous Last Words feel like Joel realized he wanted to do something important with this album. Two Thousand Years is more successful in actually accomplishing something, but Famous Last Words is nice. There are phrases and images in the song that recall some of his earlier songs, and the song leaves you with a feeling that you just caught up with an old friend for a long lunch, and at the end of the conversation, you're glad to have the opportunity to talk, but you aren't sure when, or if, you'll get to see them again.