If you were to ask me which of Billy Joel’s albums – beyond the three Greatest Hits compilations – I consider to be my favorite, I’d have a hard time choosing. Each of the CDs I own has, along with the few lesser tracks that do crop up, songs that grab my attention and demand to be heard more than once.
Now, I don’t know if it’s because I’m – like Casablanca’s Rick Blaine – a “rank sentimentalist” who wears his heart on his sleeve or because I tend to lose myself in the mood of the music I’m listening to, but when I first listened to Joel’s River of Dreams album, the track that most drew me into itself was Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel), which was written for Billy Joel’s daughter Alexa Ray at a time when the singer-songwriter’s marriage to supermodel Christie Brinkley was beginning to unravel.
Its lyrics are, fittingly, a father’s attempt to soothe a young child’s troubled soul and a solemn promise that he will always be there:
Good night my angel time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you’ve been asking me
I think you know what I’ve been trying to say
I promise I would never leave you
And you should always know
No matter where I go
No matter where you are
I’ll never will be far away
Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) owes its emotional appeal to two ingredients – heart-achingly beautiful lyrics and a hauntingly melancholic melody that sounds like a classical piano piece.
Indeed, as Joel explains the genesis of the song, Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) started out as a classical music piece; Joel’s English-born mother played the piano, and the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee lists Ludwig Beethoven and Samuel Barber among his favorite composers. Like other savvy rock ‘n’ roll songwriters, Joel has incorporated classical melodies into his songs (the chorus for his 1983 song This Night, for instance, is “lifted” from a Beethoven piano piece), and after his 1993 “retirement” the Piano Man released Fantasies and Delusions, a collection of 10 solo piano pieces performed by Richard Joo.
In any case, when he was working on 1993’s River of Dreams, Billy Joel composed the melody to Lullabye initially as a solo piano piece based in part by music by Edvard Grieg. Later, he added Latin (as in “ancient Latin”) lyrics to the melody, which follows a seemingly simple a-a-b-a structure, thinking it would be a nifty Ambrosian chant, but he wisely dismissed it as “the most pretentious crap” he had ever attempted to write.
Fortunately for Joel and his fans, the pain of his unraveling marriage and his concern for Alexa’s confusion and sadness inspired him to write this ode to unconditional love. And while it is probably meant to be interpreted only as a “dad’s song” to his child, it can probably be applied to any meaningful relationship.
Like most good songwriters, Joel likes to express his feelings in both literal terms (Good night my angel now it’s time to sleep/And still so many things that I want to sayÃ¢Â?Â¦.) and in metaphors (And like a boat out on the ocean/I’m rocking you to sleep/The water’s dark and deep/Inside this ancient heart/You’ll always be a part of me). Considering that the album River of Dreams is one of his more thoughtful albums, Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) certainly fits into the work’s themes of reflection and “summing up.” (It also contrasts nicely with the more upbeat but chock-full-o’ metaphors The River of Dreams)
The b section or bridge is a masterpiece of simplicity. There are no lyrics; Joel simply hums a soothing lullabye-like vocal with the keyboard accompaniment.
The main melody returns with the third verse, then Joel leads into the conclusion (Someday we’ll all be gone but lullabyes go on and onÃ¢Â?Â¦) with the melancholy vamp that opens the song, then the song fades out with a solemn tone, helped along by background vocals provided by a beautiful high school choir.
Joel has written many songs that explore the sadder side of life (And So It Goes, An Innocent Man), and Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) is one of my favorites of this category. So if you’re a “rank sentimentalist” and haven’t heard this song, give it a listen.