Oh Neil Diamond, it’s so nice to see you still cranking out tunes at the ripe old age of 73! Possibly best known as a 2011 inductee to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame following his illustrious, 5 decade-spanning career or the third highest-selling “Adult Contemporary” artist of all time (or to the younger generation, the hilarious plot-anchor/guest star in the 2001 Jason Biggs/Steve Zahn/Jack Black comedy Evil Woman). Not unlike the late, great Johnny Cash, 2005’s 12 Songs and Home Before Dark in 2008 kick-started something of a late-career renaissance for Diamond thanks to music’s preeminent guru/producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin. Well into his 48th year in the music business (an astonishing feat by any measure), Neil returns this month with another 12 brand new tunes in the form of Melody Road, this time under the guidance of a pair of heavyweight producers in Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M.) and dreadlocked legend Don Was (For whom it would be much quicker to list the music royalty he hasn’t worked with).
From the offset, it’s a relief to hear that Diamond isn’t attempting to recapture any former glories and the title track – a gentle, sincere ode to the simple act of writing a song – rolls at a leisurely, age-appropriate pace. That rich, iconic baritone is still as silky as ever and with sympathetic production by two of the industry’s finest does a perfect job of reminding you that, if you still want to listen, Neil Diamond still has something to say. First Time operates in a similar manner through Diamond’s affirming nostalgic lens with subtle organ and guitar flourishes that punctuate that slight rasp that has endeared him to fans for half a century.
Seongah and Jimmy tells the tale of an American boy falling in love with a Korean girl in his native Brooklyn with rich string arrangements that hark back to Diamond’s… well… diamond-days with a refreshing lack of desperation. The jaunty, brassy country of Something Blue again reminds you why Neil is also a worthy member of America’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. His earnest storyteller’s voice to this day remains one of the world’s best known and loved with the bluesy restraint and emotional rawness of Nothing But A Heartache showing exactly why in no uncertain terms.
It’s amazing that a septuagenarian heart like Diamond’s can withstand the kind of knock that would inspire a line like “How do I just forget that you were a part of me?”, which kicks off the stellar ‘60s arrangement of In Better Days. It segues into the gorgeous melancholy of (OOO) I Wanna Be Yours which again, paints a stunningly nostalgic portrait of love-gone-by in a way that only someone with Diamond’s life experience could. Admittedly, it’s a little depressing that someone in their twilight years is still singing songs of heartache and loneliness, but when said songs are delivered with such sincerity and purpose, they’re not only more palatable, but they command a much deeper connection.
By “adult contemporary” standards, Alone At The Ball rocks a little harder than most of Melody Road (which is akin to saying Neil went all-out and put two sachets of sugar into his herbal tea rather than the usual one) and thankfully, Sunny Disposition lightens the mood a little both musically and lyrically with another story-song of a couple who make each other happy flanked by some adorable doo-wop “oohs-and-aahs”. The easygoing country vibe on Marry Me Now lands somewhere between Nashville and New Orleans with its ambling acoustic guitar strums being gloriously offset by some authentic ragtime brass.
Lead single The Art of Love is probably the best cross-section of what makes Melody Road work overall – the swooping strings, the starkness of Diamond’s vocal and the closing emotional gut-punch of “The art of love is who you share it with” all tie together the previous 10 tracks gorgeously before a reprise of the record’s eponymous opener fades off in a cyclical fashion, daring you to start again from the beginning.
While it’s clear that Melody Road probably won’t make any “Coolest Albums of 2014” lists across the blogosphere, it’s a rewardingly introspective record from one of music’s longest-serving icons and should be treated with the respect it deserves. At 73, Neil’s lyrics are as observant and incisive as they’ve ever been and his voice holds up astoundingly well. Who knows how many more Neil Diamond albums there will be, but if they all follow Melody Road’s lead, we’re in for a truly great dash to the finish line. Thanks Neil.