It was the summer of 1993 when Billy Joel released “The River of Dreams,” the title track for his then-forthcoming album. When I first heard this song on the radio, it sounded different from a lot of the other songs being released to pop at the time. However, in this case, sounding different was a good thing, because it made the song stand out and sound more poignant.
At the time the song was popular, I wasn’t a religious or spiritual person. However, there was just something about the sound of the song that grabbed me. I think the optimism in the music and lyrics grabbed me, because I was at a turning point in my life. I had just finished high school, and was just weeks away from starting my first year of college. Perhaps I could connect the sense of optimism in the song to my feelings of optimism about starting college.
Just a few years later, though, I did become a religious person. Hearing “The River of Dreams” now, I can definitely see the words from a different perspective than at the time the song was receiving heavy radio play. This is definitely a song about someone being at a crossroads. While at this crossroads, the speaker feels like something is missing, but they’re not sure what exactly it is: “And even though I know the river is wide / I walk down every evening and I stand on the shore / And try to cross to the opposite side / So I can finally find out what I’ve been looking for.”
The speaker in the song also confesses to not being a spiritual person, and not being sure what exactly awaits at the end of their life: “I’m not sure about a life after this / God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man / Baptized by the fire, I wade into the river / That runs into the promised land.” The song uses a lot of imagery of rivers, as well as tangible nature images for feelings: “mountains of faith,” “valley of fear,” “jungle of doubt,” and “desert of truth.” To me, these images really help the listener understand the message that is being conveyed in the song. The inclusion of gospel-sounding backup vocals on “The River of Dreams” also adds to the “spiritual” feel of the song.
One thing that I really enjoy about “The River of Dreams” is the fact that it doesn’t sound dated. When you hear it on the radio, you don’t think to yourself, “Wow, that song obviously sounds like it was recorded back in the early 1990s.” The song is timeless, both in its lyrical message and in its sound. While I can’t say that hearing “The River of Dreams” is what ultimately made me into a spiritual person, I like to think that perhaps it helped plant a seed that ended up bearing fruit about five years later.