Hip to square and back again
The list of nominees for entrance into the Rock and Roll of Fame 2011 includes Neil Diamond. He should make it in, not just because he has sold well over 100 million records worldwide and has a successful career of that has lasted more than four decades, but because he’s an important icon by which we measure our cultural sophistication. As Bill Murray said as the title character in the film What About Bob?, “There are two types of people in the world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.” He’s an untalented hack to some and a multitalented genius to others. Meanwhile, Diamond has been around so long that he has gone from hip to square and back again so many times that one cannot keep track.
Diamond started out as a songwriter and his songs have been successfully covered by everyone from the Monkees to Johnny Cash. This time, Diamond’s singing other people’s songs, or as he says “interpretations of his favorite songs of other composers from the rock era.” Diamond has recorded other people’s music before, including classics from the rock era by legends like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. He’s even released an album of other people’s songs, Up on the Roof: Songs From the Brill Building. But there is something different about this album. It’s not just that the songs are stripped down of ornamentation. He’s done starker music, especially his last two albums produced by Rick Rubin. This one has a smattering of horn sections and string sections across several cuts and other embellishments. Dreams possesses the charm of a confident man who understands the beauty of pop music and the serious allure of emotional lyrics.
For what binds together songs as diverse as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” is the mining of deep feelings. The sophisticated poetry of Cohen’s lyrics and the simple tropes of O’Sullivan both share a profound sense of the self-importance of the narrator’s angst. So, who could sing these songs better than the man who wrote, “I am, I said / to no one there” and passionately deliver it to a popular audience? Diamond’s version of Cohen’s classic works because Diamond knows better than to try and croon it beautifully ala Jeff Buckley. Diamond lets the flaws in his voice shine through to emphasize the humanity of its singer. And while O’Sullivan, like Diamond, has often been mocked for his solipsism, Diamond’s rendition plays it straight. He lets the lyrics bluntly speak, so that lines about suicide and death of God from the view of one hurt by love are just as severe as any pronouncement by a Nietszchian nihilist.
While the record has a serious tone, not every song is heavy. Diamond covers two Randy Newman tunes (“Feels Like Home” and “Losing You”) and one from Harry Nilsson (“Don’t Forget Me”)—composers noted for their playful renderings of emotional content. Diamond does them both justice as he captures the persona of those lost in love, whether the relationship has worked out or not, with convincing inflections. He uses just the right touch. The same is true for his version of the nice and easy atmospherics of Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song”. That’s why these are among the album’s most satisfying tracks.
On other songs, such as the Beatles’ “Yesterday” or the Eagles’ “Desperado”, the tactic doesn’t work quite as well. Diamond’s restraint seems affected. It’s not that he sings these songs badly as much as one wonders why he bothers singing them at all. He doesn’t bring anything new to the material, and they come off as just well-sung versions of well-known songs. This is less true of the other familiar material, such as his takes of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia”. Both cuts offer small pleasures. Diamond reversing the genders of “Midnight Train” in particular is a nice touch, as the idea of Mr. “Love on the Rocks” giving up a Los Angeles career to be with his woman offers a clever reversal to the Diamond of the past.
But the biggest reversal and revelation is Diamond’s rendition of his own “I’m a Believer”. Some will dislike his toning down of the cheery pop hit. His more solemn rendition actually intensifies the happiness of the singer. When he slowly notes, “What’s the use of trying / all you get is pain / When I wanted sunshine / I got rain”, the effect of the later lines pronouncing his love and exultation seem more beatific and earned. The gospel roots of the declarative sentences make one want to worship at the church of love. Not a bad feat for a man sometimes known as the Jewish Elvis.