Neil Diamond, Dreams

by Timothy Yap

Where have all the good songs? In today’s music economy of dwindling sales, instead of crafting more new to-be classics, many of the revered artists (including Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart, and Barry Manilow) have gone back to revisit the past. Regardless of what that says about the current state of music today, the past is indeed a treasure trove to mine. For his 30th album, this seventy year old crooner has decided to traipse the songs from the rock era that have been touchstones in his own life. Nevertheless, instead of prostituting himself by singing them karaoke style, Diamond has deconstructed them, imbued them with his patented nuances, and skimpily dressed them often with just piano, guitars and strings. Perhaps his sessions with Rick Rubin have rubbed off on him, Diamond has stuck to the adage less is more. Though this is mostly a downbeat stripped down affair, Diamond sings them with a quiet passion that is uplifting and heartfelt. Nevertheless, song choices are somehow safe as Diamond has chosen some of the more well known songs from the rock era including two from the Beatles (“Blackbird” and “Yesterday”), Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”), Leon Russell (“A Song for You”), Randy Newman (“Feels Like Home”) and even himself (“I’m a Believer”). It would have been even better if Diamond were not just hover around these icons’ signature tunes and maybe tackle a few more obscure tunes.

Diamond shows that he is the master of interpretation on Gladys Knights and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Here with just his plaintive tenor awash with all the weathered scars and some haunting harmonica riffs, the feeling of missing someone far away has never more real than on this rendition of this superb tune. Another heart tugging moment comes with Diamond’s sober take of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Backed mainly by the piano, Diamond takes his time to squeeze out every ounce of emotion from this ballad. Though the strumming of the acoustic guitar on “Alone Again (Naturally)” gives a brisk rhythm, it nevertheless does not take away the song’s lofty message of finding hope in the times of death, heartbreak and spiritual isolation. While Linda Ronstadt gave Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” a bombastic uplift a few years ago, Damond’s take is more like one you would hear performed to an intimate crowd in a coffee shop.

Diamond resurrects his own “I’m a Believer.” This time round, there is less of an urgency that perhaps comes with maturity. Diamond here takes in time to delve into the spiritual recesses of the song giving it a more seasoned reading. Also, with the maturation of years, Diamond’s take of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” is more believable. When he sings about “I’ve acted my life in stages/ten thousand people watching” you know they are merely scripted rhetoric. While Whitney Houston transforms “A Song for You” into a slick dance anthem on her brilliant album “I Look to You,” Diamond takes the jazzy route topped off with some excellent saxophone solos. More intimate bounds abound with an almost campfire feel as Diamond recounts some life lessons on “Losing You.”

Perhaps the major quibble that will be fired at Diamond is that 14 ballads all of them performed in a stripped down fashioned may require more attention and careful listening. Things would have been more sustaining if a few uptempoes and/or a few duets were added. Nevertheless, in this day and age where lyrics are repetitive and cliché, these classics remind us again that good songs are perhaps historical. But it’s good that Diamond has gone back to the past: revisited these gems, re-lived them again and given them some a fresh coat of interpretation. This project is indeed a labor of love and “Home” is indeed where the heart is.

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