By Bernard Zuel
December 17, 2005
Neil Diamond is drawing attention again from the kind of general media that long ago consigned him to the “forever in (elastic-waisted) blue jeans” golden oldies circuit. Lest that be seen as a sneer at other publications, can anyone remember the last time a Neil Diamond album was reviewed in the Herald? Indeed, can anyone remember the last time a Neil Diamond album was worth reviewing? But here he is with the album of the week.
There are three ways to look at this. Cynically, but not unfairly, it’s true that if you stay alive long enough people forget the excesses and consider you a “legend” for being able to stand upright and speak. Ozzy Osborne may be a prime example. Less commonly, sometimes you realise what it is about your talent that spoke so eloquently in your heyday – and what time, money or other vices did to obscure that talent for so long – thus inspiring your best work in decades. Elton John is the supreme recent case study.
Quite rarely, you are encouraged to go where failure or, even worse, ridicule awaits and from that furnace you emerge with something stronger and better. The last decade of Johnny Cash’s recording career is the exemplar, and now, Neil Diamond.
Diamond’s new producer, Rick Rubin, who made his name as a hip-hop maven with a rock aesthetic, was the man behind those last Cash albums. He’s taken on a bigger task here, though, bringing that same pared-down style to a man for whom bombast was almost a default position.
Step one was to force Diamond to re-examine his songwriting. The result is a dozen songs, emotionally direct and soaked in awareness – easily the best he’s written in 25 years or more. Step two was to remove from the sonic palette in most of the songs pretty much everything except guitar and voice. The result: equal parts Cash and Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad, and the raw flesh hinted at in Diamond songs such as Solitary Man. No, I can’t believe it either, but I’m still listening.