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CD Review: Neil Diamond - "Home Before Dark"

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Neil Diamond's new album, Home Before Dark, is an intimate portrait of a man. A very intimate portrait. A portrait of every single thought that runs through Neil Diamond's head while he just happens to have a pen handy. This album, which will drop on May 6th, is so depressing and self-indulgent at times that it should be titled Songs to Slit Your Wrists By.

The music is simultaneously pretty and intense, with a heavy emphasis on acoustic guitar. Some of the melodies are lovely, particularly on "If I Don't See You Again" and "Home Before Dark".

Neil Diamond is definitely a skilled guitarist, and perhaps if the album had been instrumental, it would be good for getting stoned and listening to while lying on the floor.

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Instead, sitting in a roomful of music critics at Rick Rubin's listening party, I felt like Neil Diamond's therapist, struggling to look interested as he explored his abandonment issues in great detail.

Home Before Dark took 14 intensive and emotionally tortured months to write and record, with Neil Diamond often sleeping on a cot in the recording studio. Many of the tracks are only the third or fourth take after Neil Diamond taught the musicians the songs and let them jump in when they felt comfortable.

Instrumentally, the hard work shows. In fact, sometimes it seems like showing off as the music jumps from a calypso beat to a spooky murder ballad melody to mariachi-style horns in the space of one song. Neil Diamond veritably screams, "Look what I can do!" as he scats, talk-sings like Rex Harrison (or the Shangri-Las) and finally throws in some Young Americans-style R&B background singers. And that's just track 3 (titled "Don't Go There").

The songs start out dark and only get darker. "If I Don't See You Again" is an excellent breakup song. It is easy to imagine some drunk guy in a bar monopolizing the jukebox to play it over and over again. The only problem with this scenario is that the lyrics are too complex and nonrepetitive for barflies to sing along to while they drown their sorrows. As a result, the world champion of the drunken break-up song is still Roy Orbison, with a close second to Patsy Cline. Sorry Neil, maybe next time.

This album really needs a "Cherry, Cherry" somewhere to give the listener an emotional break. Instead, we get "One More Bite of the Apple". At least it is in the fruit category. Written about getting another chance at love, you would expect it to be joyful, or maybe a little grateful. Instead, the song manages to sound desperate and empty.

The intro to "Forgotten" is really upbeat, but I can no longer trust Neil Diamond. And I was right. It is an SOS. A cry for help. And not an upbeat pop SOS like ABBA. There are a few catchy moments, but soon the soul-crushing continues. Neil sings, "I feel like I'm doing my time under that sign that reads 'forgotten'." Abandonment issues? Me? Just to really drive that home, he spells it out - literally - "F-O-R-G-O-T-T-E-N". Spelling? Really? Spelling only ever worked in "Respect" and maybe "Cheese and Onions," the latter of which was a joke. This was no joke. As this song played, some of the music critics at the listening party began busily checking their email on their Blackberries. OK, maybe Rag Mop too, but spelling still doesn't fly in a self-pitying ballad.

"Pretty Amazing Grace" serves up a welcome helping of love and hope. Unfortunately, like many of the songs, it fairly bursts at the seams with out-of-control metaphors. It is the appointed "hit song" of the album, and you can check it out here. It is annoyingly catchy, and the one song that invades my brain at random moments when I don't have my guard up. Standing alone, it is an inspirational love song, filled with hope and awe. It is also a lone ray of light in the vast chasm of darkness that envelops Neil Diamond.

Occasionally the singer you have come to appreciate for his catchy cheesiness emerges on this album, but within moments, the song is always ruined by tortured-artist-in-love navel-gazing, laughable cliches, or as in "Another Day Time Forgot" by a jarring and sudden duet with the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines.

"Act Like a Man" has a nice melody you could waltz to. The lyrics are basically Neil Diamond giving himself a pep talk, "It's time to act like a man." I imagine that he has a post-it note on his bathroom mirror with that quote on it, and that he repeats this daily affirmation as he shaves. Wearing only a towel. With the hairiest chest in the world. OK, I have to stop imagining now.

At this point in the listening party, Rick Rubin mercilessly jumped ahead to the last track. Maybe he saw us eyeing the windows. Don't even try it, guy from the LA Times, at that height you'd only break an ankle.

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Track 12 was "Home Before Dark" and the lyrics were reminiscent of Robert Frost. Oh my gosh, he's coming up the walk where she's waiting for him! After all that heartbreak and angst, Neil is finally going to find happiness and maybe write another "I'm a Believer!" It's really the first cohesive track that actually sounds like a complete song from beginning to end, rather than a Frankenstein of various musical tricks. The album brought him full circle, back to his true love, back to solid songwriting. Then at the end, he sings a line about how she makes him "come home before dawn." Did I hear that right? Not home before dark? Home before dawn? And he feels f-o-r-g-o-t-t-e-n?

I'm afraid our time is up, Neil. We'll pick this up in next week's session.