You had to feel for Neil Diamond. With 12 Songs he’d just recorded his best album in 25 years, and just as the critical and commercial success was beginning to build around it, Sony’s Rootkit fiasco meant it was withdrawn from sale.
Perhaps spurred by the sense that his last album ended up being ignored through no fault of his own, Diamond hurried back into the studio to record another deeply personal album. And it’s one that ranks alongside anything else in his 46-year recording career.
Diamond’s second collaboration with Rick Rubin in three years catches him in reflective mood; looking back, but always with one eye on the future. The reunion with Rubin ensures that the emphasis is always on Diamond’s plaintive lyrics and distinctive voice, with subtle accompaniments added by Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Smokey Hormel, and former Will Oldham collaborator Matt Sweeney. There are no drums.
The 12 songs here are all entirely new, and Diamond sings solo on all but one them. The exception is “Another Day (That Time Forgot)”, a duet with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. The song is a joint confession between two lovers who have no idea how they’ve grown apart. With Tench’s piano beautifully filling the breaks between the verses, Maines’s voice is mournful, shadowy, and the perfect foil to Diamond’s world-weary croon.
In fact, lost love is a theme running throughout Home Before Dark. The astonishing opening track, “If I Don’t See You Again”, has Diamond sounding more vulnerable and exposed than ever as he reflects on the bittersweet aftertaste of a love long gone (“I went out looking for love / And never liked what I found / Don’t pay to make it alone / God knows it’s lonely out there / I made it once on my own and hardly anyone cared”). It is, quite simply, classic Diamond.
Gorgeous first single “Pretty Amazing Grace and, later, the trembling “Without Her” follow the path of clear-sighted nostalgia, but there’s more to Home Before Dark than longing and melancholy. “One More Bite of the Apple” focuses on Diamond reuniting with his true love: songwriting (“Been away from you for much too long / Been away but now I’m back where I belong / Believe when I was gone away that I’d do just fine / But I couldn’t get the music off my mind”). It’s one of the few moments of bluster on the album, and Diamond is forced to stretch his 67-year-old lungs, as Sweeney’s guitar pushes him just past his vocal limit.
It follows “Forgotten”, the other unashamedly boisterous rocker on the album, and the only other time that Diamond’s voice, otherwise in fine fettle throughout the album, quivers and cracks. These flaws and imperfections in Diamond’s voice do nothing to detract from the album. He doesn’t write like a young man, and his words shouldn’t be sung like one.
Blemishes and all, Home Before Dark is an album of rare beauty, grace, and eloquence that captures Diamond in all his plain-spoken and big-hearted glory. And it is easily the most intensely personal release of his esteemed career.