Of all the things my long-suffering wife has had to endure in our marriage, surely the strangest must be my genuine enjoyment of the works of Mr. Neil Diamond.
Yes, I know about the sparkly shirts, I’m aware of his extended detour into schmaltz from 1977-2000, and I’m aware that he has the hair of a Jim Henson creation. However, I’m also appreciative of the fact that he’s a remarkably expressive singer who has written an incredible number of quality songs and huge hits (though the two often weren’t mutual). Like a spear-fisher with a gleaming brass trident, he stabs his songs into existence and bellows the haggard shout of life.
Don’t bother to analyze that last sentence.
Diamond was the longtime victim of snobbish disparagement by music critics, but recent years have seen a welcome re-evaluation of his gifts as a songwriter and showman. A cursory cruise through his copious catalog reveals a cornucopia of catchy choruses: Cherry Cherry, Cracklin’ Rosie, I’m a Believer, Sweet Caroline, I Am…I Said, Brooklyn Roads, Forever in Blue Jeans, Love on the Rocks, etc. A celebration of these songs is not what this blog entry is about, however. Like my Paul McCartney post a few weeks back, this entry is here to direct interested listeners to a few lesser-known Neil Diamond gems. These songs might suprise you with their quality, or maybe they’ll make you hate me. Either way, the important thing is that I’m making you read this.
The Boat That I Row (1967):
This track has all the appeal of Diamond’s early hits like Solitary Man, but without their over-familiarity. It allows the listener to hear him for the miner of high-quality pop nuggets that he was. This song’s subject matter was also prescient, noting that he didn’t fit in well with any musical category (nor would he ever – whose career does his parallel?).
Lordy (live, 1969):
For all the dippiness his studio recordings occasionally demonstrated, Neil Diamond has a longstanding reputation as a remarkable live performer. This early live recording is shocking in its intensity – the reserved, polite audience gets a growling, howling performance by a lean band. It certainly ain’t The Who, but it’s pretty good nonetheless. (Check out a fun cover by Nine Inch Neils, a metal tribute band, here.)
Captain Sunshine (1972):
For my money, Diamond’s peak years were 1968-1972, when he began asserting a measure of creative independence and maturity but hadn’t yet descended into AOR schlock (albeit well-crafted, occasionally worthwhile schlock). This track is an example of the understated, wonderfully melodic quality of much of his work in those peak years. It’s California-influenced, country-twinged pop – doing the Eagles thing when they were just getting started. While his albums are notoriously scattered affairs, there’s a few from this era worth investigating for their lesser-known tracks like this one.
Gitchy Goomy ; Porcupine Pie (both 1972)
Neil Diamond is a part-time purveyor of goodtime nonsense songs – instantly likeable, singalong tunes that mean absolutely nothing at all. These are two of my favorites in this category. The lyrics are genuinely head-scratching, but if they catch you in the right mood, you’ll be tapping your toe in seconds.
Here’s a great, goofy video I found online for one of these songs by a couple high school kids. I got a real kick out of it.
Hooked on the Memory of You (1988):
Here is this list’s sole representative of Diamond’s schmaltz years. The song is a pretty, affecting ballad notable for its (relatively) understated production – no dramatic key changes here. There’s an audience for this material (i.e. moms), and I can appreciate it in bite-sized portions. I like this song a lot, and it demonstrates that for all the producers he handed over the musical reins to, he never lost his touch for writing melody.
Hell Yeah (2005):
After the chart hits died out in the mid-1980s, Neil Diamond spent the 90s churning out greatest-hits packages and Christmas albums (notable because he’s Jewish). There were sporadic sparks of life, but most Diamond fans simply assumed his best was now clearly behind him. 2005 marked the release of 12 Songs, an album produced by uber-producer Rick Rubin (Metallica, Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash). Diamond and Rubin also partnered on 2008’s Home Before Dark, with yet another album in the works for next year. The albums are sparse affairs – the instrumentation is primarily organic and acoustic but the spark was back. Their work together hasn’t been flawless, but it is regularly excellent. This track, Hell Yeah, demonstrates the verve and potency of these albums. It was Neil Diamond re-introducing himself, and not apologizing for anything.
Delirious Love (2005):
This was the first single from 12 Songs, notable for the involvement of Brian Wilson. As a result, the studio version sounded like a mash up of Diamond’s 60s-era style with the Beach Boys. It’s a fun, infectious tune. When he performs it live, it’s more of an intense, churning style built on chugging acoustics.
Another Day That Time Forgot (2008):
This is a brooding rumination of a song performed as a duet with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. The lyrics are somber but captivating, and the performance itself it haunting. He sticks with the minor chords here, feeling no need to oblige his mom-audience with a chipper resolution. Notably, many of his latter-era songs like this demonstrate qualities in his songs that weren’t evident until this point; clear evidence that he was no longer on autopilot.
If I Don’t See You Again (2008):
Here’s a startlingly honest break-up song that demonstrates that, when he picks his moments carefully, Neil Diamond is the king of the dramatic buildup. If this song had been around back when I was dating and breaking up with some regularity, this would have been a tune I would have held on to. At the same time, it’s a strange song – it’s over seven minutes long, there isn’t really a chorus, and no lyrics repeat except for the title. It’s a hell of a thing.
Here’s video of him performing the song with the Rubin’s session men, including Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers.
By the way, I should apologize. I know that 1,000 words on Neil Diamond probably wasn’t what you were looking for when you visited my blog today. Come back tomorrow for a post on mule hoarding.