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Neil Diamond - Home Before Dark Print E-mail
Friday, 01 August 2008
ImageAlways regarded as a great craftsman and tunesmith, Neil Diamond has occupied an unusual place in the American songwriting canon, utilizing his undeniable gifts to sell millions of records but remaining just on the cusp of counterculture acclaim throughout his now 50-year career. With a catalog stuffed with memorable hooks and clever turns of phrase, he nonetheless has remained a terminally un-hip artist, a man whose overwrought self-examination and melodramatic phrasing has kept him from ever achieving the sort of stoic gravitas that has come so naturally to the Bob Dylans and Leonard Cohens of the singer-songwriter world. As such, he provided a particularly daring choice for Rick Rubin, the uber-producer who revived the moribund Johnny Cash 15 years before he attempted a similar renaissance for Diamond on 2005’s 12 Songs. And while Diamond didn’t become an overnight icon for Generation Y, the album provided a nice comeback for the veteran artisan, stripping away the overproduction that had plagued his releases for years and re-centering him on the rudiments of voice, lyric and acoustic guitar. The reviews were good and it sold well, but the previously unconverted weren’t particularly impressed. Neil Diamond was still the king of uncool.

With Home Before Dark, Diamond doesn’t figure to make any more inroads to kids who wear White Stripes or Death Cab for Cutie t-shirts, and he’s better for it. The approach that served Diamond and Rubin so well three years ago is revisited, as Diamond’s warmly resonant voice is paired with acoustic guitar strums and moody pianos. As a storyteller he’s in fine form, ruminating on lost love and offering testaments to fidelity that ache with age and wisdom. “Been away from you for much too long, been away but now I’m back where I belong,” he sings with his warm baritone on the thoughtfully confessional “One More Bite of the Apple,” essentially providing the thesis for the album’s themes of finding happiness at home. “I’m thinking about the life we could have made, lost the one we had somewhere along the way,” he continues on “Another Day (That Time Forgot),” a duet with Dixie Chick Natalie Maines that utilizes homey acoustic guitar strums and reflective piano fills to create a sturdily thoughtful arrangement. There’s even a track that sounds like it could have been released in his late-‘60s heyday, as the organ-driven “Forgotten” picks up a surprisingly elastic groove that proves he still knows the way around his favorite formulas.
Unfortunately, a little formula goes a long way, and where Diamond thrives in the three-minute pop song form, he becomes tiresome when stretching songs past the five and six minute mark. That’s a sin he commits over and over here, running the otherwise poignant “One More Bite of the Apple” into the ground with extra verses and making the already grating “Don’t Go There” simply unbearable. Only once does his long-windedness serve him well, as he weaves a compelling narrative through the perfectly understated seven-minute “If I Don’t See You Again,” his protagonist going from defiant to stoic before admitting his desperation and loneliness.

Though he’s undeniably a master craftsman, Diamond’s reliance on formula leaves the resulting songs a bit boring and predictable, whether he’s adopting a cowboy ballad form for the insightful “Act Like a Man” or asking and answering his own questions on the disarmingly sentimental “Whose Hands are These.” Clever but cloying, his wordplay and alliteration is a bit too flashy for its own good, slipping into misguided rhymes with lines such as “take your time/even Einstein reclined/designing his theory.” That said, Diamond never struggles to stay on topic, as his songs leave very few strings untied. Though his writing is often conflicted, he always ends up back at the conclusion that despite his life’s travels, he’s happier being at home with the one he loves. But what he gains in perfectly balanced song structures he loses in mystery and nuance, leaving the listener with few illusions that Diamond is saying anything that requires much examination to see below the surface. Instead, these songs go down easy from the first listen but don’t seem to leave much substance to be dissected on further listens.

Similarly, despite the fact that the threadbare arrangements play to his strengths as an artist and a performer, the album suffers from arrangements that often leave songs struggling to distinguish themselves from each other sonically. The tight focus leaves the lyrics to carry most of the weight, and some tracks simply aren’t up for the task, with Hallmark card overstatement sinking “The Power of Two.” Of course, such criticisms are meaningless when discussing Diamond, as overstatement has been his calling card for over four decades. But in an era when most songwriters succeed through shadows and obfuscation, there’s something to be said for someone who writes songs about not being able to get through the night without seeing his lover. Diamond provides such immediacy.

Unlike Johnny Cash, Diamond just doesn’t have a brooding or subversive bone in his body. Though his songs are full of loss and longing but touched with an optimism and hopefulness, written from the perspective of a man who has learned from life’s mistakes and is desperate not to repeat them. Unfortunately, those kinds of songs are a difficult sell for those raised on cynical indie rock or solemn singer-songwriters. That doesn’t mean that Diamond has made a bad album, just one that’s out of step with most of his target audience. Where Cash could convincingly cover a Beck or a Danzig song, Diamond is perennially the sentimental songster for middle-aged housewives and people who think Bob Dylan can’t sing. But just as you’re about to write him off, there’s always a song or a nugget of wisdom that keeps you from hitting the skip button, as you’d miss little details such as Diamond staying up until 4 AM to talk to his wife or sneaking back into the house before daybreak. Ultimately, it’s those moments that define Diamond as much as his sentimentality and overstatement, and whether you like him or not, he’s unwavering in his commitment to his brand of songwriting.

Like most Rick Rubin-produced releases, this one sounds fantastic, emphasizing richly arrayed acoustic guitars and pianos, with Diamond’s vocals high in the mix. Subtle touches of strings and electric guitars turn up occasionally, but they rarely make much discernable difference in the arrangements. That said, high-end equipment will capture more of the nuance in the simpler arrangements, as the performances do reveal little quirks and intricacies that would be lost on cheaper equipment and less attentive ears

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