Say what you will about Neil Diamond — he knows how to work the media. The release of Three Chord Opera was aided by a marketing blitz that included a prominent (and really interesting) episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, an all-request show on A&E, and numerous talk show appearances. There’s even the new Gap commercial with comedian Will Ferrell doing a spot-on imitation of Diamond. The only thing missing is a marathon of The Jazz Singer on American Movie Classics. From the sudden swelling of interest in his music, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe he’d been retired and living in a monastery for the last decade.
Diamond’s never really gone away, though, and has been steadily releasing albums (his 1996 effort Tennessee Moon even reached #3 on the country album charts). His career is filled with truly classic songs that won’t go away, such as “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”, “I’m a Believer”, and “Solitary Man”. The neighborhood tavern I frequent even has a long-standing tradition of “Sweet Caroline” singalongs. Neil Diamond is all around us, whether we know it or not (it wasn’t that long ago that I found out he’d penned the Monkees standard “I’m a Believer”).
For all of that, Diamond’s something of an anachronism, a throwback to an almost alien and forgotten mode of songwriting. Diamond rarely meets a lyrical cliché too time-worn or obvious, and I’m not sure he’s even heard the word “irony”. In our detached, jaded culture, Diamond runs from irony like a vampire fleeing the morning sun. For this reason alone, some people simply can’t listen to him. Pile on ample layers of studio sheen, and you find Neil Diamond with a style that’s just a little too hard to swallow for some folks. Conversely, there are also plenty of people who proudly wear their emotions on their sleeve and who don’t need hardscrabble poetry or self-conscious wordplay to link their emotions to the sounds coming from the radio. Diamond serves these people.
Three Chord Opera, his first collection of completely new music in about a decade, continues in that fine, earnest tradition. Is it The Jazz Singer? Is it going to make his greatest hits collection seem tragically incomplete? Nah. But it does show that Diamond never really lost his knack for making overt, stirring music. The cover photo of Diamond looking slightly aged and wise, clad in a leather jacket, with his acoustic guitar resting comfortably in his lap might imply intimacy, but Three Chord Opera is of the grand Diamond mold, despite the title’s winking modesty.
A few songs, notably “I Haven’t Played This Song in Years”, are subdued and personal. Joined by “Midnight Dream” (with its Buffett-like lyrics about sailing aimlessly in order to forget) and “You are the Best Part of Me” (marked by muted steel drums and big-R romanticism), these quieter tunes find Diamond exploring his feelings in broad strokes and with a minimum of gloss. The disc even closes with a set of lullabies: the broad ode to his son, “Elijah’s Song”, and “Turn Down the Lights”. Between them is the countryish and catchy campfire singalong of “Leave a Little Room for God”.
However, songs like “Don’t Look Down” (which could be the theme song for many an animated Disney film) are epic and sweeping. The horn-driven “Baby Let’s Drive” is a far cry from Springsteen but is cut from the same romantic sheet metal. Possibly the worst offender, though, is “At the Movies”. Like some Broadway parody straight off The Simpsons, it’s corny and littered with cheesy sound effects (check out the lasers!). This more dramatic material, though, makes you wonder why Diamond hasn’t actually conquered the world of Broadway and show tunes. He certainly has the hooks and his lyrical sensibility is tailor-made.
Ultimately, Three Chord Opera fits in well with what Neil Diamond’s been doing all along: providing the kinds of songs that accompany a dozen roses or a bottle of wine slowly emptied in isolation. In those kinds of situations, universal is usually better.