Billy Joel's fans, it's clear, have no problem with him: Eight of his 10 previous studio albums have made the top 10. But the critics! They along with people whose musical taste runs even slightly alternative can't take him seriously, no matter how many songs he writes on such pressing subjects as unemployment and the Cold War. The allegation against him? He's shallow, and (a related offense) he's just too slick a pop machine who will sit down at the piano and bang out a tune, seemingly without stopping to think.
That his songs are superbly crafted only makes matters worse, of course. Rock & roll, hard-core critics insist, should sound anything but crafted; it should hit us as a primal howl from the gut. But by that standard, Joel's new album, River of Dreams, comes as a surprise, because it is a cry from something approaching the depths.
''I must be looking for something/Something sacred I lost,'' he sings in the title track, and at the very least there's a touching inwardness to almost all of the songs. It is most obvious in the quiet ''Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),'' which he wrote for his 7-year-old daughter, Alexa Ray, but introspection crops up nearly everywhere. At 44, Joel wants to tell us that the world is a complicated place. And (as he notes in a slice of musicalized philosophy called ''Shades of Grey'') the people we'd better watch out for are ''those who never have doubts.''
Joel, of course, has been thoughtful before; he's hardly the writer of empty pop hits that his critical reputation suggests. Even his early albums are full of off-center surprises: bittersweet vignettes of everyday life (''Scenes From an Italian Restaurant''), wry self-appraisals (''Piano Man'') and advice to troubled friends (''James''). But now his serious strain, which he himself called ''journalistic,'' takes an intensely personal turn; always self-aware, he now turns himself inside out.
You might not sense that in the first two tracks, ''No Man's Land,'' an arena-size attack on developers who ruin Joel's Long Island countryside, and ''The Great Wall of China,'' an equally big-boned slam at a friend who betrayed him. But everything afterward, even the lullabye, is remorselessly self-analytical. In ''Blonde Over Blue,'' Joel digs into what sounds like his relationship with Christie Brinkley, revealing a strain of manic obsession. In ''A Minor Variation,'' propelled by a tough-minded riff for guitar and Hammond organ, he howls his defiance of unspecified troubles that assail him ''like a hungry pack of wolves when it's feeding time.''
Is his self-analysis original? Not really. He's hardly the first to conclude that life is made up of ''shades of grey.'' And, no matter what new depths he may have plumbed, he's still Billy Joel. He still writes pop hits that title track, which blends an irrepressible quasi-African beat with echoes of the happiest doo-wop is already a radio smash.
But this time it's hard to dismiss him as shallow. The songs rock hard, and his music and singing are too persuasive. The chorus of ''Blonde Over Blue'' opens with what for him is an unusually jagged thrust; as he sings it, his voice twists into an edgy falsetto that embodies the tension in the lyrics. A more straightforward tune about Christie, ''All About Soul,'' rides on guitar chords that seem to rise from a darkened landscape; as he sings his restless melody, he sounds almost humble.
The album grows stronger, the hooks more commanding as River flows toward its close. By the end, Joel's unstoppable melodic gift could even be a metaphor for acceptance, as he finds peace in ''Two Thousand Years,'' a driving, anthemic vision of the future, and ''Famous Last Words,'' which offers the end of summer as an untroubled symbol of approaching middle age.
River of Dreams is a popmeister's epiphany, a pensive record that also manages to be irresistible. Ten years ago, Joel's pop aptitude might have seemed like an empty talent, streaming along with no relation to anything his songs had to say. But when he probes this far into himself, it becomes something stronger, almost a state of musical grace. A-