Rick Rubin pisses me off. What’s he got against drums? I could almost forgive the lack of drums on Rubin’s first Neil Diamond production, 12 Songs. Back then, one could argue that it was necessary to clear the slate of all the sequins and spangles that Diamond had been building up since 1973. I wasn’t happy about the lack of drums, but I could understand it.
But two in a row without drums? That trick’s a gimmick, Rick. You don’t need to beat us over the head with intimacy. Especially not when the songs are (once again) this good.
Believe it or not, with Home Before Dark the Diamond has whipped up another batch of 12 good songs. And if at times it sounds a little too much like a repeat of 2005, well, that’s not such a bad thing because that was a fine album.
Just like last time, the new album opens with a slow burner. “If I Don’t See You Again” clocks in at 7 minutes, eleven seconds, and while that might seem excessively long for a pop song, it works in this case. There are no jammy guitar solos or any other filler in those seven minutes: just Neil trying to convince himself that he’s going to be alright. And failing miserably. “Who am I kidding? I’m going nowhere / I can’t even get through an hour without you.” Powerful stuff.
Another highlight is “Don’t Go There,” wherein weathered old Grandpa Neil advises us on how best to stay out of girl trouble. “You’re looking for love in the back of a limousine / you’re looking for something that’s missing inside to fill you / If you think you can run on the power of nicotine / they’ve got a new drug for your mood that will surely thrill you…” The best part of the song is Neil’s lecherous chuckle after his warning, “Once you’re in you might not get out.” And it’s great to hear some female backing vocals, and even a little trumpet.
Some of these songs are begging for richer production. And I can see how giving in to that impulse could lead to just another cheesy Neil Diamond album. So, in general, I respect the restraint. But there’s got to be a pay off. We’ve got all this tension building up from the songs trying to burst out of their arrangements, so we need at least one big huge loud classic Neil Diamond number with those great “Shilo” drums to let us off the hook.
But Neil sounds great, and the lyrics feel honest and personal. When he talks about wanting “one more bite of the apple,” you believe him. The lyrics never overtly reveal whether he’s talking about his career or about a final “for old times sake” booty call with a lady friend. Either way, it’s a heck of statement from a guy who, for thirty years, forgot how great of a songwriter he could be.
And it looks like he got what he wanted. Home Before Dark debuted at #1, which amazingly was his first number one album in over 40 years of making music. It’s great to see him on top of his game.
And I’m already looking forward to the next album.
Video: Neil Diamond – “Don’t Go There” (live)
Video: Neil Diamond – “Pretty Amazing Grace” (live)