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Iconic older singers do good business with covers and standards these days. There are a few different approaches. Rod Stewart is up to five volumes of his American Songbook series, which does standards (and sells many CDs) the straightforward way. If you’re lucky enough to have heard Paul Anka’s versions of “Jump” and “Eye of the Tiger,” you’ll be familiar with the mildly campy approach. And then there’s the surprising project that reinvigorated Johnny Cash’s career — working with Rick Rubin on grave, minimal covers of songs like Nine Inch Nails’ ”Hurt.” That’s the tactic that’s come to be seen as the artistic approach, the credible one. The music world always finds it easier to connect with older people when they seem all weathered and dark.
Neil Diamond’s new covers record, Dreams, seems to take its cue from Cash and Rubin: the songs here aren’t dark, but they’re solemn and portentous, mostly with a sparse backing of piano and acoustic guitar. I would almost say it’s like listening to a Leonard Cohen album, but that makes it sound stranger than it is: the effect is more like Diamond is singing each song the way you would at the funeral of someone who’d always loved it. Which is not so strange when he’s doing an obligatory take on Cohen’s own ”Hallelujah” — the unlikely official album of 21st-century solemnity — but is a pretty surprising move for a rendition of the Monkees’ ”I’m a Believer.” (Diamond originally wrote that song, which makes this an odd sort of ”cover.” But if you’re ever arranging a funeral for a huge Monkees fan, this version has you covered.) Something about that mood makes a few of these tracks — ”Desperado,” ”Midnight Train to Georgia” — bizarrely compelling, though it’s up in the air whether you’ll feel compelled to enjoy them or just giggle a little.
Part of that is a function of Diamond’s voice, which is not exactly a sage and gravelly thing like Cash’s. It’s a voice we’re used to associating with cheery stage shows, and a singing style that, at this point, can feel ultra-familiar in the way William Shatner’s acting used to — full of dramatic cadences that are funny when other people parody them, and thus super-cool when they come from the original source. Shatner figured that out a long time ago, and promptly ruined the whole arrangement. Diamond’s a lot more likable than that, and hearing him gravely intone the song ”Yesterday” in a lonely, disappointed voice can have hard-to-describe effects on the nervous system.