For over 40 years, Neil Diamond has rocked our souls with his thundering voice, an explosion of chest hair, and the drunken sing-along chorus of “Sweet Caroline” delivered with hair-raising intensity. It may sound cliché, but from arena to stadium, he has seen a million faces, and yes, believe it or not, he has rocked them all.
This all goes to make his new album, Home Before Dark, all the more surprising. Again joined by Rick Rubin, who also worked on Diamond’s 2005 album, 12 Songs, and the producer of choice for late career revivals, Diamond has crafted an album that finds him returning to his roots as a Brill-building songwriter in New York City in the early 1960’s. And that is a good thing. A real good thing.
Lost in that explosion of chest hair in the 1970s was the fact that Diamond was a pure singer-songwriter when he started, before then becoming an arena-rocking demigod with perfectly coifed hair. Before his voice became an instrument of awesome, filling cavernous stadiums with goose-bump inducing enthusiasm, his songs were simple acoustic affairs. His first hits – “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “Kentucky Woman” – bear this truth.
As on 12 Songs, Diamond straps on a guitar in the studio for the first time since his early albums. Starting with a gentle acoustic intro on the album opening “If I Don’t See You Again,” you expect Diamond’s voice to explode into some roof-rattling chorus as he has done for so long. That moment never comes. And it is in that moment that Diamond reveals who he is and who he has always been; a simple songwriter with a guitar in hand, writing songs of deep meaning and intense feeling.
Backed by a band assembled by Rubin – Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench (keys) and Mike Campbell (guitar) – Diamond dials down his legendary bravado and lets the power of each song carry the album. Those trademark Diamond moments are still present – the triumphant crescendo chorus of “Pretty Amazing Grace” is pure, classic Diamond – though they are now hidden within each song. His voice is still that instrument of awesome, but now he sings with a restrained power, exploding only on occasion. “One More Bite of the Apple” finds him unleashing a joyous reflection on one’s life with just a hint of regret.
The mark of a truly great Diamond album is its translation into the arenas and stadiums he has rocked for so long. For the twelve songs that make up Home Before Dark, it is easy to see them making on the big stage. In my mind’s eye, I can see already Diamond, sweat dripping from his still perfectly coiffed do, a single spotlight on him leading a packed house of 12,000 Diamondheads, Diamondnittes, or whatever they are called, through the anthem-like chorus of “Don’t Go There” with fist-pumping ferocity.
Home Before Dark reflects the singer’s age. Many of its songs are about the passage of time and looking back on one’s life, and the title itself may reflect Diamond’s preference for a good night’s rest. But one thing is clear: he may get home before dark, but not before seeing another million faces and rocking them all.
Home Before Dark is out now on Columbia Records.