- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Neil Diamond

Home Before Dark

Columbia Records

By rights, Neil Diamond shouldn’t have a lot left to prove. The 67-year-old singer grew up as a child of Tin Pan Alley before becoming one of the most commercially successful singer-songwriters of all time.

To cite just one example of Mr. Diamond’s ubiquity, the Brooklyn-born troubadour’s hit “Sweet Caroline” is played at Fenway Park during the middle of the eighth inning of Red Sox games. This puts the tune on a pedestal with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

At the same time, Mr. Diamond has never won much hipster credibility. Some of his most recognizable songs are identified with other performers. Pioneering metal band Deep Purple is responsible for the iconic version of “Kentucky Woman.” The song “Red Red Wine” is associated with the British reggae band UB-40. “I’m a Believer” was a big hit for the Monkees, and the Urge Overkill version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” made a lot of noise when it appeared on the soundtrack of the blockbuster film “Pulp Fiction.”

Mr. Diamond himself always seemed a little older and squarer than the rockers of his generation — something between a thinking man’s Jimmy Buffett and a Leonard Cohen for middle management.

Mr. Diamond’s new album, his second with legendary producer Rick Rubin, feels calculated to raise the artist’s profile as something more than a popular entertainer with a knack for snappy hooks and lyrics celebrating the sensitive-male psyche. To a large degree, it works.

As was the case with their earlier collaboration, “12 Songs,” Mr. Diamond and Mr. Rubin work from a radically stripped-down sonic palette consisting primarily of guitars and keyboards. There are almost no drums to speak of on the entire album. The rhythm comes from Mr. Diamond’s aggressive strumming on the acoustic guitar and the keyboard playing of Benmont Tench.

The songs are, fittingly, about the power of second chances. “One More Bite of the Apple” is about the joy Mr. Diamond finds in his return to writing original songs. He sings, “Free the word from the page/ Free the bird from the cage/ Just go out there and face what you did before/ Did it once you can do it once more.” Look for the spare but powerful guitar-and-piano-driven tune to be the showstopper on his next tour.

“Pretty Amazing Grace” is another variation on the theme of second chances. The line, “You forgave my insensitivity/ And my attempt to then mislead you/ You stood beside a wretch like me/ Your pretty amazing grace/ Was all I needed” sounds a lot like a man apologizing for an affair.

A lot of begging for forgiveness is going on in pop songs, but precious few address the inspiration to be drawn from the experience of being forgiven; it could go down as one of Mr. Diamond’s finest efforts.

For all that, Mr. Rubin emerges as the co-star of “Home Before Dark.” His work with Mr. Diamond is of a piece with his “American Recordings” series with Johnny Cash. Among the controls on his mixing board, Mr. Rubin must have a special knob that fades in gravitas, wistfulness and a keen awareness of mortality. Mr. Diamond has never sounded so gritty, so wise, so haunted and so grateful to be still alive as he does on this genuinely moving album.

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