Home Before Dark
John Metzger's #15 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2008, Volume 15, #5
Written by John Metzger
Thu May 29, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Considering how long he has been sleepwalking through his career, it would be easy for music fans to fall into the trap of dismissing Neil Diamondís latest effort Home Before Dark without giving the matter too much thought. On the one hand, Diamond could be praised for daring to remain within Rick Rubinís world for another stripped-bare set and perhaps be given an extra "half-star" for his efforts. On the other hand, he also could be chastised for following the same exact format that he previously had employed on his successful 2005 collection 12 Songs ó which, in turn, mirrored Rubinís American Recordings series with Johnny Cash.
While listening more closely, however, it becomes apparent that although Diamond still has room for improvement, there also is something far greater going on within the constructs of Home Before Dark. Unlike his increasing adherence to formula over the better part of the past 30 years, which undoubtedly was a symptom of Diamondís desire to retain his superstar status, the similarities between 12 Songs and Home Before Dark represent the reawakening of his creative Muse. Diamond forthrightly addresses this notion in his liner notes, which provide a detailed and insightful glimpse into his creative process. In recent years, there have been countless autobiographies by an array of well-known, pop culture figures, but Diamondís brief essay is so refreshingly ego-free and revealing that it tops them all.
Throughout his career, Diamond rather consistently has worn his heart on his sleeve. From a critical perspective, the key to the success of his songs largely has been the result of how they have been presented by him as well as by others. Backed once again by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, Diamond leant Home Before Darkís material precisely the level of raw, personal intimacy that it truly needed in order to survive. The endeavor may follow in the footsteps of 12 Songs, but itís hardly a comfortable affair. In fact, the directness of Diamondís approach is occasionally a little off-putting. It is, after all, somewhat strange to hear him perform with such restraint, punctuating his lyrics with softly posed questions rather than with the sorts of emphatic exclamations that long have been his bread and butter. Instead of placing himself upon a pedestal, he rips the foundation from beneath his feet.
To some, the tracks on Home Before Dark initially might sound like demos ó such is Rubinís way. The arrangements are remarkably subtle, sometimes evoking the í60s folk-pop of Simon & Garfunkel (Donít Go There, One More Bite of the Apple) with, perhaps, a dollop of the Everly Brothers tossed in for good measure (Forgotten). Likewise, when a string section is employed, it is dispensed in a tastefully unobtrusive fashion, one that enhances rather than detracts from the understated nature of the music. In other words, with Rubinís help, Diamond resisted the overly confident earnestness that customarily has marred so much of his work, both in the studio and on stage. Instead, he embraced the quiet, somber, and reflective introspection of his lyrics.
Naturally, the best songs on Home Before Dark are those on which Diamond found the right balance between his past and his present. Both the opening cut If I Donít See You Again and the subsequent Pretty Amazing Grace sound like vintage tracks from the 1960s, albeit ones that he now is able to deliver with the kind of maturity that comes later in life. Rather than masking his pain behind confident posturing, Diamond dives headfirst into his uncertainties and self-doubt, thus transforming all of his aching regrets into something palpable. Thereís an aching sadness that burrows to the surface of the former tune, and a sense of the bittersweet that flutters around the fringes of the latter one. Singing alongside the Dixie Chicksí Natalie Maines, Diamond pulls the same feat on Another Day (That Time Forgot), and the heartache and pain that hauntingly hover in the air provide plenty of reasons to forgive him for the countless sub-par duets that have dotted his canon.
The photos that have been incorporated into Home Before Darkís accompanying booklet are well suited to timbre of the endeavor. Capturing the golden shadows of twilight, they strike the same autumnal scenes as Diamondís songs. With several tracks stretching past six minutes in length, Home Before Dark clearly is a collection of material that flies in the face of the pop music market. Essentially, Rubin replaced Diamondís Vegas-ready schmaltz with an aura of naked vulnerability, and the relaxed atmospheres that he created not only allow Diamond to take his time in sharing his thoughts but they also give his songs plenty of room to breathe. As they evolve, they ultimately resonate with and assume deeper meanings.
For the record, not everything on Home Before Dark is an absolute success, and it truly is unfortunate that the latter half of the affair doesnít quite match Diamondís mesmerizing opening salvo. If it had, the album surely would be considered his masterpiece ó and yet, it still may turn out to be exactly that. To his credit, Diamond challenges both himself and his fans to the point where cuts like Slow It Down sound strangely disconnected from his existing canon, only to congeal with time until they fit firmly within the framework of his new direction. Few artists at this stage in their careers would be willing to take the sorts of risks that Diamond has. By refusing to settle for cheap tricks that play upon the hot buttons of human emotion, he has managed to resurrect the artistic credibility that seemed, until recently, to have escaped him for good.
51st Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
Of Further Interest...
Home Before Dark is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box