By: Tim Newby
For over 40 years Neil Diamond has rocked our souls with his thundering voice, an explosion of chest hair and drunken sing-along choruses like "Sweet Caroline" delivered with hair-raising intensity. It may sound clichéd, but from arena to stadium he has seen a million faces, and yes – whether you believe it or not - he has rocked them all. This makes his new album all the more surprising. Again going to the producer of choice for late career revivals, Rick Rubin (who also worked on Diamond's 2005 album, 12 Songs), Diamond has crafted an album that finds him getting back to his roots as a Brill Building songwriter in New York City in the early 1960s. And that is a good thing. A real good thing.
Lost in his hirsute, denim-ness in the '70s was the fact that Diamond wasn't always an arena rocking demigod with perfectly coifed hair. When he first started he was just a simple songwriter with an acoustic guitar. Before his voice became an instrument of awesome, filling cavernous stadiums with goose-bump inducing enthusiasm, his songs were simple acoustic affairs. His first hits "Solitary Man," "Cherry, Cherry" and "Kentucky Woman" bear this truth out.
As he did on 12 Songs, Diamond straps on a guitar in the studio for the first time since his early albums. Starting with a gentle acoustic intro on opener "If I Don't See You Again," you half expect Diamond's voice to explode into some roof-rattling chorus, as he has done for so long, but that moment never comes. And it is in that difference that Diamond reveals who he is, who he has always been - a simple songwriter with a guitar in his hands, writing songs of deep meaning and intense feeling.
Backed by a band assembled by Rubin, that includes Heartbreakers Benmont Tench (keys) and Mike Campbell (guitar), Diamond dials down his legendary bravado and lets the power of each song carry things. Those trademark Diamond moments we have come to expect are still present - the triumphant build to the crescendo chorus of "Pretty Amazing Grace" is pure, classic Diamond – though they are now hidden within each cut. His voice is still that instrument of awesome but now he sings with a restrained power. He does let loose and explode on occasion. "One More Bite of the Apple" finds him unleashing the aforementioned awesomeness in a joyous reflection on one's life that he sings with just a hint of regret.
The mark of a truly great Diamond album is how well it translate into the arenas and stadiums he has rocked for decades. It is one thing to write a collection of simple, acoustic based songs, but taking them to the stage is an entirely different matter. And for Diamond taking them to the stage is what he does. Despite a slight decline in record sales through the '80s and '90s, he was and still is a major concert draw, filling arenas around the world. For the twelve songs that make up Home Before Dark, it is easy to see them making move to the big stage. In my mind's eye, I can see already Diamond, sweat dripping from his still perfectly coiffed hair, with a single spotlight on him leading a packed house of 12,000 Diamondheads or Diamondnittes, or whatever they are called, through the anthem-like chorus of "Don't Go There" with fist-pumping ferocity.
Home Before Dark reflects the singer's age. Many of its songs are about the passage of time and looking back on one's life, and the title itself may reflect Diamond's preference for a good night's rest. But one thing is clear, he may get home before dark but not before he sees another million faces and rocks them all, too.
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