Neil Diamond's 2005 collaboration with Rick Rubin, 12 SONGS, found the latter stripping the pop legend's work down to a sparse, acoustic-based sound, as he'd famously done for Johnny Cash in the '90s. Apparently the experience impressed Diamond enough … see full wiki
Pros: Great duet with Natalie Maines; nice country direction
Cons: Neil's voice doesn't always fit songs; some songs too long
The Bottom Line: A solid album from Neil Diamond, but not without minor flaws
As a dedicated fan of Neil Diamond, I often find myself having to explain exactly what it is about Neil and his music that is so great (hey, I'm not the one who watches the X Factor!) To be fair I can understand why some people are completely turned off by his music - at least his output until 2006: it's prone to be bombastic and overly dramatic though this does not seem quite so apparent when you hear the songs performed live. Diamond is the songwriter behind some classic songs performed by others (I feel compelled to apologise for UB40's "Red, Red Wine" however) and there are few people who can't sing along (albeit under the affluence of incohol) with some of his best known songs.
2006's "12 Songs" album on which Diamond teamed up with the legendary producer Rick Rubin was a marked departure and, as a famous Glastonbury appearance brought a new audience to Johnny Cash, Diamond suddenly earned a new credibility. As a fan of alt country music I loved this new direction but a good number of older fans weren't so keen. Happily with his most recent album, "Home Before Dark" (2008) he seems to have found a happy medium.
This twelve track album is collaboration with Rubin and the producer's trademark sound is still apparent, but this album is more Diamond than Rubin which you couldn't say about "12 Songs". Where "12 Songs" was firmly on the alternative side of country, "Home Before Dark" is essentially classic Diamond but with a gentle country tinge and the songs pared right down. Listen to the lyrics and pick up on the sentiment - this is vintage Neil Diamond but nobody could now point the finger at him for being overblown and pompous (at least not all of the time).
So what if he can't break free from the formulaic song construction - the soaring choruses, the quieter verses, the big finale? There are no surprises; you always know the direction a Neil Diamond song is going to take, but now the songs sound fresher and somehow freer.
If I had to find something to criticise it would be that Diamond's distinctive voice doesn't always suit the type of song he's singing. To me he has a "show time" voice that we are used to hearing belt out songs that could almost be from musicals. However, he doesn't come across to me as having a voice that's particularly suited to country style songs and I'd have preferred to have heard some of these numbers passed over to someone else to record. Additionally, a couple of tracks are a little too long with too many unnecessary tempo changes that threaten to take us back to the old days; at over seven minutes long, the decision to place "If I Don't See You Again" as the opening track was a misguided one.
Still, of the twelve tracks on the album I'd be hard pushed to find a stinker. On the other hand there are a number of stand out tracks: "Pretty Amazing Grace" follows that typical Diamond formula and has already proved it to be a popular number at live shows. "Forgotten" is a mid tempo song that has a great guitar line but suffers from some very corny lyrics; still its quintessential Diamond done acoustic style. "No Words" has a pleasing chug along guitar line and is one of the more upbeat songs, a real foot tapper. My favourite track, however, was one I'd not been expecting to like: "Another Day (That Time Forgot)" is a gorgeous mellow duet with Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks). Her very "country" voice works so well with his slightly gravelly tones and the piano is quite magical.
In the movie "What About Bob?" Bill Murray says "There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don't". If you're in the second group there's perhaps not much I can say to persuade you otherwise. If you're open minded enough to give some thought to whether Diamond can do anything different then check out "12 Songs"; "Home Before Dark" is perhaps too close to Diamond of old to convince those who aren't already fans. If you liked "12 Songs" but felt it was too stripped down, you'll find some comfortable middle ground with this album.
Unbelievably, this is his first album to hit the number one spot in the United States - there are plenty of reasons to explain why!