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AS WITH hearing “here’s the bass solo”, the news that an artist is doing an album of covers is generally a sign that fans can take a break for a while, safe in the knowledge that this will be a space filler – probably good but not essential.
So after Neil Diamond revived respect and his career with the albums 12 Songs and Home Before Dark, two compilations of intense and personal songs stripped back to bone and muscle, you’d be forgiven for abandoning expectations on seeing his latest album, Dreams, was a collection of songs by contemporaries such as Bill Withers, Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen.
However, although Dreams is not as sparse sounding as its two Rick Rubin-produced predecessors, there is an emotional rawness that connects them. In all three albums there is a sense of Diamond, who turned 70 last month, pulling something out from deep within him.
Advertisement: Story continues below ”At this point in my life, every song that I sing, whether I record it or perform it, it has an urgency to it that I’ve never really felt before,” Diamond says softly. ”I always felt that there was plenty of time to experiment and do basically what I wanted to do, but now it feels like I have to get down to business and make every song count, every note count. That’s what’s been happening.
”They cut deeper for some reason, inside of me. They are not just performances, they are expressions of who I am and what I am. That’s probably what you are hearing, I sense it as well. I don’t think it’s intentional but I’m beginning to believe that that’s the whole underlying foundation of these last few albums.”
For all the glittered-up showman image he carried through the 1970s and ’80s, an acute awareness of his flaws and frailties is a constant through Diamond’s work, from his earliest songs such as Solitary Man. He has never been afraid to show us his weaknesses ”because part of the nature of the pact that I have with the audience is that I be totally honest … even to the point of making a fool of myself”.
”They want a real human being and that’s what I’m going to give them,” Diamond says. ”I’m not trying to present some kind of perfect being. I am not Jesus Christ, for god’s sake, I’m just another guy who happens to be able to write music and sing and loves doing it so let’s not take it too far. I still put my pants on one leg at a time.”
Which is always comforting to hear from the son of haberdashers.
Equally comforting, probably, for fans is that he is still performing and is about to embark on another Australian tour. But why would a fabulously wealthy 70-year-old man still bother with the rigours of touring? One answer is clear if you have seen footage of Diamond offstage and on. Offstage he looks and sounds his age, a little frail even, but as he comes into the light his shoulders noticeably straighten, his stride lengthens and his voice firms as he seems to drop a couple of decades.
”You do feel uplifted,” he says. ”Up till then it’s all theory but when you step out on stage in front of the audience, the faces, the reactions, the responses, the warmth, it gets you, it changes you, it transforms you. Basically, offstage I’m a quiet person, I fly under the radar. I have a very low silhouette and I like to move and do things very quietly. On stage, I’m ennobled by that audience.”
Can he envisage giving up performing? ”I thought for many years that I could walk away and never look back but I think the reality is that this is something that I will have to do and continue to do for the rest of my life. There are chemicals going on in your brain that do things to you that lift you and you become addicted to it after a while. The audience looks up to me and I want to be that person that they are looking up to, I want to equal that person.”
Neil Diamond will play in Pokolbin, on March 19 and Sydney Football Stadium on March 26.