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Neil’s No Diamond in Rough: Pop Music Legend Hits Billboard Chart at No. 1

August 3, 2008

By Malcolm X Abram, The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio

Aug. 3–When pop music legend Neil Diamond takes the stage of Quicken Loans Arena tonight, he will bring with him 42 years of hits, songs that have been woven into the fabric of American pop culture.

At this stage in his career, Diamond doesn’t really need a reason to tour, but his latest trek comes behind the release of his latest CD, Home Before Dark. It’s his second album with producer Rick Rubin, who revitalized Johnny Cash’s career and made him relevant to young listeners with the American Recordings series.

Rubin and Diamond first worked together on 12 Songs, an album that was well received but whose commercial fortunes where sabotaged by Sony’s copy protection program Rootkit, which quietly hid itself in listeners’ PCs and caused a variety of problems. The album was released again without the copy protection, but the momentum was already lost.

Like 12 Songs, Home Before Dark is a sparsely arranged collection of songs featuring Diamond’s still strong and expressive baritone and his guitar, with no drums and low-key contributions from Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell, as well as Chavez frontman Matt Sweeney and guitarist-for-hire Smokey Hormel, whose long recording resume includes the Dixie Chicks, Justin Timberlake, Beck and Mick Jagger.

The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, a surprising first for Diamond, 67, who has sold more than 125 million albums worldwide and written 36 Top-40 hits. It’s a surprising bit of trivia, given Diamond’s storied career, and a fact that the man himself didn’t even realize at first.

“Well, I didn’t actually think it was my first No. 1,” the affable singer/songwriter said during a conference call.

“Somehow in my mind, I don’t know what the opposite of a state of denial was, but I thought for sure I had a No. 1 album somewhere along the way. I thought Hot August Night was No. 1, but then I was told it only went to No. 2, so I was crestfallen.

“It’s a nice feeling to be No. 1. It’s very nice. I enjoyed every moment of the time that I was No. 1, and I enjoyed the fact that people became aware that it was my first No. 1 and they were a little amazed at that.

“Also, I’m told that I’m also the oldest performer on Billboard charts ever to have a No. 1 album, which amazes me. (Modern Times, released in 2006 by then 65-year-old Bob Dylan, was the previous record holder.) I don’t feel that old. I feel very young, but it’s nice to feel that in this market that’s filled with young people, or seems to be aimed at young people, that an old [artist] can come along and knock a few of them off their perches and say, ‘Hey, here’s for the senior citizens, and we can kick a little butt, too.’ “

Songs such as the vaguely Spanish love song Pretty Amazing Grace and the lightly bluesy Forgotten probably won’t find their way to college radio stations, but that’s fine with Diamond.

With Cash’s American Recordings, part of Rubin’s mission was to recontextualize the legend for younger audiences by using contemporary songwriters. But the producer’s work with Diamond has been about simplification and allowing the singer’s songs and voice to shine unadorned. In other words, the two albums aren’t aimed at reinventing Diamond or making him seem hip for hipsters.

“No, I like the way I was invented originally. I’ve kind of gotten used to it. This is just another step, that’s all. I’ve been taking steps since the beginning, from Cherry, Cherry to I Am I Said to America to Christmas music to Home Before Dark. It’s me,” he said.

“I’m not reaching out for anybody but the audience that wants to listen. That’s all. I’m not doing anything logical. I’m not pre-planning anything. Maybe I would have had a better career if I had, and thought it out, but it was all based on how well I could write the songs, and how good the songs would be, and how the audience took it to their hearts, or not, and it’s still that way — exactly that way.”

The North American leg of Diamond’s tour comes shortly after his European tour, which received glowing reviews for his vocals and high-energy performances. Diamond credits the energy he receives from his audiences, and said that filling a two-hour set with songs from his long career is a mix of pleasing himself, his longtime band and, of course, his fans.

“I think it’s mostly felt. It has to be felt. You have to imagine it. You have to imagine yourself in that circumstance in front of an audience, and what you come up with and introduce your show with. That’s usually how it starts with me. What is the first song? From the first song, I know what my last song is going to be, which is Brother Love’s (Traveling Salvation Show, from the 1969 album of the same name).

“All I have to do is fill in the blank spaces for the next two hours, but it’s mostly imagining how the audience is going to respond to each song in order. Does it make sense? Does it follow the emotional mountains and valleys that I believe a good set list should contain? Does it leave the audience feeling satiated and uplifted? Does it please you, meaning me?

“But I think there’s a sixth sense somewhere involved in that, in how a set list can involve an audience for two hours and keep them enthralled and entertained and having a good time. I have a feel for it. I really do believe I have a feel for it, and I just follow my instincts.”

Diamond says he’s too busy enjoying the present to think about what’s next. “I’m just going to enjoy this, all the wonderful fallout from the release of Home Before Dark and the wonderful response to the show. I’m just committed to enjoying the hell out of it and not thinking about anything else for a while.

“Maybe six months from now, I’ll really start to think seriously about what’s next. I have a feeling it will have something to do with music.

“That’s all I know.” Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758.

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