He shows enough humorous self-effacement to make up for any past crimes of pride.
Chris Jones 2008
In 2006, Rick Rubin, Def Jam's bearded uber producer, decided to try the same trick with Neil Diamond that he'd used to transform Johnny Cash's final years into a lasting legacy - that of stripping it all back to the bone to highlight what made him a legend (in Rubin's mind at least): his songwriting skill. While his writing credits alone should see him placed up there next to Carole King or Paul Simon, the truth is that few people seem to really understand where Diamond sits in modern popular music. Half schlocky showman, half heartfelt troubadour he's an odd mix of loner and grand balladeer. Witness his mysterious appearance in Scorsese's Last Waltz, where his brand of showbiz sincerity stuck out like a sore thumb. Yet while longtime fans just said 'we told you so' on the release of 12 Songs, the milions of doubters still stayed away. Will Home Before Dark do the trick this time?
As if in answer to the naysayers who regarded 12 Songs' 'unplugged' approach as a little too sparse (especially considering Diamond's rather basic guitar technique), this time Rubin has employed half of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers (Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell) and filled out the sound accordingly. But still on a few of these tracks you sense that even more arranging would have helped coax these songs out of their demo-like sparseness. The title track in particular, while building up on the choruses could be a real epic. But apparently (according to Diamond's own sleeve notes) Rubin's approach to production consisted of uttering the odd gnomic utterance in his ear before retreating to the couch behind the desk.
It's a shame, as Diamond writes songs that beg for BIG treatments, and while this may be some of the most painfully honest material of his career (Don't Go There for example) they deserved grander backing. But still, Home Before Dark is, on the whole, marvellous. Here sincerity doesn't equal bombast or inflated egos. The notes tell of his uneasiness in being judged by his peers, and on Act Like A Man he shows enough humorous self-effacement to make up for any past crimes of pride.
Even better, when Neil's joined by Dixie Chick, Natalie Maines on the album's best track, Another Day, it's with suitably heartbreaking results. Perhaps next time Rubin will get Diamond to make a whole album of duets. This reviewer for one would love to hear him paired with someone like Alex Turner. Here's hoping...