"THE BRIDGE." Billy Joel. Columbia. Every time Billy Joel goes into the studio, he acts as if he's got something to prove--and it's something different each time out. His last album of new songs, 1983's "An Innocent Man," tried to recapture the spirit of the good-time music of the '50s and early '60s. 1982's "Nylon Curtain" was an earnest stab at writing meaningful songs about social issues. "Glass Houses," from 1980, was a frantic bid to be a real rocker.

In fact, the last time Billy Joel released a straightforward collection of new pop songs was eight years ago, when "The Stranger" and "52nd Street" made him one of the most successful pop craftsmen around. Like them, "The Bridge" is a collection of mostly unconnected songs, not another Grand Experiment. Still, Joel can't resist biting off more than he can chew.

Joel is a good popster because most of his melodies are instantly hummable and his melodramatic voice is the kind that radio loves. But that melodrama wears thin when each ballad is bigger and boomier than the last, and those melodies can't help a mealy-minded song like "Modern Woman," in which he talks about how he just doesn't understand this crazy women's lib stuff.

Worst of all is the centerpiece, "Baby Grand." It's the piano man's love song to his faithful instrument, and even some help from Ray Charles can't salvage the most overly dramatic of all Joel's ballads. This overdressed lounge tune verges on parody even before they get to the part where Billy congratulates himself for having written it.

Two other guests fare better and bring out the best in Joel. The simple, acoustic beginning of "Code of Silence" is a breath of fresh air, and co-writer Cyndi Lauper's exuberant backing vocals are an additional kick. And the basic rocker "Getting Closer" ends with just the right touch: a spirited organ solo from Steve Winwood.

Those uncharacteristically down-to-earth moments show that Joel can still be an artist to be reckoned with. On the rest of the record, he sounds like he's still trying to prove something--and all he proves is that he's a lot more likable when he's not trying to prove anything.

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