Pop-rock veteran Billy Joel returns to the fray with "River of Dreams," an eclectic collection of well-crafted songs - and perhaps his most satisfying studio set since the early '80s.

A decade ago, Joel dipped mightily into the musical past with the dark "Nylon Curtain," memorable for its Beatlesque overtones, and the '60s flashback "An Innocent Man." "River of Dreams," too, has more in common with that pop tradition than with the shifting sounds of the '90s, yet his observant lyrics are as timely, and trenchant, as ever - if not more so. Once the voice of "The Angry Young Man," he remains disillusioned about a lot of things - but he's also hopeful. Family and hard-won, time-worn perspective are foundations of "River of Dreams."The album is launched with a vengeance by the rocker "No Man's Land," a caustic putdown of an easy target - urban sprawl and the attitudes and lifestyles of the suburban class. Growls Joel:

Give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise

Raise up a multiplex and we will make a sacrifice

Now we're gonna get the big business

Now we're gonna get the real thing. . . .

But more importantly, he utters a core concern: "I see these children with their boredom and their vacant stares/God help us all if we're to blame for their unanswered prayers." The impactful tune is powered by the high-octane guitars of Leslie West, once of Mountain, and of the album's producer, Danny Kortchmar, best known for his work in the '70s with Linda Ronstadt and in the '80s with Don Henley.

Other combative, even autobiographical songs lambast traitorous advisers ("The Great Wall of China," which actually has a forgiving, moving-on tone, considering Joel's recent litigations . . .) and the blurring of black and white and other ambiguities he's finding in his middle years ("Shades of Grey," a song one friend noted strongly echoes the sound of the 1960s triumvirate Cream). "A Minor Variation" is a pop-modification of Memphis-style blues, bursting with complaint about troubles and battles, but also an excellent vehicle for this chameleon-voiced singer.

Joel isn't mad at everyone and everything. The album's at-first irate mood quiets a little on "Blonde Over Blue," a road-born love song, and shifts down for good with "All About Soul," a sincere valentine with none of the subtle mockery found in hits like "Just the Way You Are." Both are surely tributes to wife Christie Brinkley, who, it turns out, is also an artist - she created the cover art for "River of Dreams."

Most appealing of all are the album's twin centerpieces, "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" and the title song.

"Lullabye" is a tender piano and string-ensemble melody, undoubtedly meant for his daughter, Alexa Ray, but expressing sentiments that could also be directed to an adult loved one. The simple, effective style is reminiscent of songs on his very first album, "Cold Spring Harbor," first released in 1971. "The River of Dreams" is a crystallization of Joel's cross-pollinated pop style, with gospel, R&B, doo-wop and African-style percussion propelling the tune. And again, Joel is in great voice, singing about faith and doubt and the neverending search for truth. "I'm not sure about a life after this/God knows I've never been a spiritual man/Baptized by the fire," he admits. Still, "I must be looking for something/Something sacred I lost/But the river is wide/And it's too hard to cross."

"Two Thousand Years," a grandiose but, at heart, folk-tinged look at the millennial crossroads now only a few years away and "Famous Last Words" close the show. They reiterate a theme touched on throughout "River of Dreams" - the relentless passage of time.

Billy Joel - piano man, the stranger, big shot - is now a fortysomething singer-songwriter, and the world's not quite what he thought it was in the good-old/bad-old days. But that does not mean he doesn't still have something to say. More years have passed - four since "Storm Front" and "We Didn't Start the Fire"; another album's in the stacks . . . and he'll be back. As he says in his forthright message-for-the-masses, "Famous Last Words":

These are the last words I have to say

That's why this took so long to write

There will be other words some other day

But that's the story of my life.

RATINGS: four stars (* * * * ), excellent; three stars (* * * ), good; two stars (* * ), fair; one star (* ), poor, with 1/2 representing a higher, intermediate grade.