Neil (Leslie) Diamond Essay - Critical Essays

Diamond, Neil (Leslie)

Introduction

Neil (Leslie) Diamond 1941–

American songwriter.

Diamond rose to fame in the 1960s with the recordings of his compositions "Cherry, Cherry" (1966) and "Sweet Caroline" (1969). Since then he has consistently secured top positions on the record charts with numerous hit singles, albums, and the motion picture soundtracks for Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) and The Jazz Singer (1980). Diamond's songs are in a wide range of styles, including ballad, pop and country rock, folk, and gospel, as well as rhythms from African and Caribbean music. Because of his diversity, Diamond attracts a variety of audiences. His exploration of universal themes, such as the search for identity in "I Am, I Said" (1971) and "Be" (1973) and the elusiveness of love in "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" (1978) and "Love on the Rocks" (1980), has also contributed to his popularity.

Diamond's songs often reflect his personal experiences. His album Beautiful Noise (1976) was inspired by his years as a Tin Pan Alley lyricist. Similarly, the story of The Jazz Singer, a movie remake in which Diamond starred as an actor and for which he wrote the lyrics, parallels Diamond's break with his traditional Jewish family in his pursuit of a career in music.

With a Grammy, a Golden Globe award, and an Oscar nomination, all for Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and more than twenty gold and platinum records, Diamond's popular and financial success is indisputable. Yet critical response has not always been favorable: some reviewers consider Diamond's lyrics sentimental, pretentious, and clichéd. Critics generally agree, though, that Diamond's engaging melodies and powerful performances make him one of the most appealing entertainers in contemporary music.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108.)

William Bender

In the past three years, Diamond has turned out enough hit songs (among them: Kentucky Woman and Sweet Caroline) to keep the current champion, Burt Bacharach, watchful and busy. But where Bacharach plods as a performer, Diamond dances.

In person, Diamond has a naturalness and relaxed cool that are fine foils for rhythms as infectious as a Mardi Gras parade. His voice still has a touch of the crooner, but it can turn soulful. His songs delve ingeniously into hard and soft rock, blues, gospel, even country rock—a range of styles that Bacharach does not even try to match. (p. 46)

[His album Tap Root Manuscript] is ample proof of Diamond's versatility. Side I contains Cracklin' Rosie (a reference to the joys of loosening up with a sparkling pink wine), a Top Ten single for two months last fall, as well as [his remake of Bob Russell's and Bobby Scott's] He Ain't Heavy … He's My Brother, currently the No. 22 single.

Side 2 is devoted entirely to The African Trilogy, which grew out of Diamond's interest in gospel music and his desire to explore its rhythmic roots. Using African beats—more so-phisticated than African melodies—Diamond grandly started out to depict the three principal stages in a man's life: birth, maturity, death. Though the trilogy finally grew to six parts. Diamond liked the original title and kept it.

Trilogy or six-pack, it is a stunning example of pop cross-breeding: Soolaimon, for example, is a pulsating toe-tapper that Diamond terraces forcefully with one climax after another. In contrast are [the] … tender lines from a children's chorus called Childsong that opens the work…. (p. 47)

William Bender, "Tin Pan Tailor," in Time, Vol. 97, No. 2, January 11, 1971, pp. 46-7.

Melody Maker

Besides "Cracklin' Rosie," [Neil Diamond's] hit single, "Tap Root Manuscript" contains what is presumably his magnum opus to date, a seven-part work called (somewhat paradoxically) "The African Trilogy," subtitled "A Folk Ballet." Diamond's note on the sleeve explains that this is his homage to African music, and it's obviously a very heartfelt thing. Fortunately he does it from his point of view, rather than throwing in a load of pseudo-Africanisms, and if the result isn't terribly profound, at least it's entertaining (what?). Particularly enjoy-able are the groovy "Soolaimon" and a track called "Miisa," which calls to mind the "Missa Luba" by the Choir of King Baudoin…. On the other side there's Neil's smooth rendering of "He Ain't Heavy," which made the American charts as a single, and a beautiful song called "Coldwater Morning," with a fine arrangement by Lee Holdridge. A very worthy album, then, but I hope that "The African Trilogy" doesn't presage a venture into heaviness and pretension. I'd be happy if he just kept writing things like "Cherry Cherry" and "Sweet Caroline."

R.W., "Diamond in Darkest Africa," in Melody Maker, February 27, 1971, p. 15.

Alec Dubro

Diamond's latest album, Tap Root Manuscript, is a half step at being Artistic.

Side One is the usual—a couple of dynamite singles and a couple of not-so-hot singles. "Cracklin Rosie," which made it to number one nationally, is excellent Neil Diamond. Named after the wine of the same name … Rosie's a good chick. Diamond isn't afraid to throw in a little early-Sixties schmaltz. He has thoroughly bypassed, or ignored "rock"—progressive or otherwise. He's chosen to go ahead with straight pop. But, two things set him apart from, say, Bobby Vee. One is that he has a really knockout voice—once it might have been called a "strong baritone." And two, he's deeply involved with the music he writes.

"He Ain't Heavy … He's My Brother," one of the only songs Diamond has recorded that he didn't write, is a good example of the straight-out-soul that Neil Diamond can sing. "Free Life" is another good cut, although it hasn't made it on Top-40. "Done Too Soon" is one of the duds. Reminiscent of Paul Simon's "A Simple Desultory Phillipic," it's just a rhyming list of famous, groovy people who were ahead of their time—done too soon.

Side Two is the Artistry, open to question. This is The African Trilogy (a folk ballet). It's a varied and ambitious work….

[The music is] certainly far less pretentious than its introduction. The worst of it has been identified as: "wimoweh"...

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Roy Hollingworth

[Neil Diamond's songs during a 1972 concert on Broadway] are pretty, and poppy, and in the way he delivers them—melancholic, and ultra-romantic…. And yet, they are as see-through and substantial as a Woolworth's nylon nightie in the rain.

Their chording is simplistic, and oft to be the same—and his voice is want to drone on, and on, and on. It creaks like an oldish door, and is seldom delivered from higher than the Adam's apple. It is a rather shaky attempt at drama. It can make you utter the expression "ugh!" and "ahhh," but seldom "wow."

They are the sort of songs that if you think only a little, you'll be able to guess as near as dammit what the next line will be. To be truthful, they lack imagination to an awful extent.

His rhyming is dead easy. Examples: Dove rhymes with love, heart rhymes with part, and willow rhymes with pillow etc. It would be far more interesting if he rhymed dove with shove, or heart with tart, on occasion, and attempted to write something a little different. As it stands Neil Diamond is heart rhyming with part, and dat's dat. (pp. 10-11)

Roy Hollingworth, "Diamond Jubilee," in Melody Maker, October 21, 1972, pp. 10-11.

Paul Kresh

The best thing about [the movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull] … is Neil Diamond's score, and the Columbia recording of the original soundtrack … is thus a lot easier to take than the movie for which it was prepared.

Mr. Diamond, who recently has delved into soft rock, blues, gospel, country music, and soul since his emergence as a rock superstar a few years ago, supplies a kind of contemporary tone poem that captures the serenity of the scene from the earliest chords, and manages to blend an up-to-date idiom with an impressionistic feeling for the moods of weather and rock seascapes, summoning a suggestive power that enables this music to stand on its own. There are also a number of songs like Be and Skybird and Lonely Looking Sky that attempt to translate the ideas of the story into folk-musical terms and do succeed in conveying a wide-sky, windswept mood despite lyrics that seem to draw their inspiration more from Hallmark than from nature. In addition, there is a frankly religious "anthem" with lyrics consisting entirely of such words as "sanctus" and "kyrie" and "gloria." The anthem's controlled exaltation speaks well for Diamond's taste and inventiveness: I have never heard a children's chorus intoning popular music less objectionably.

Paul Kresh, "Jonathan Livingston Popstar," in Stereo Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, February, 1974, p. 94.∗

Tom Nolan

"I've seen the light," the first song [on Serenade] begins, and Neil Diamond reads his line with the slovenly confidence of an illuminated saloon singer, a cosmic Sinatra hinting at some grand message to come. But all that Diamond has to offer are bland musings adrift on an empty sea of strings, a handful of spiritual cliches ("Plainly it is all a circle") pegged to a gallery of culture heroes—from Picasso to Longfellow to Christ—and sung in a variety of dialects either embarrassing or aggravating, depending on whether sympathy is placed with the singer or the listener.

Tom Nolan, in a review of "Serenade," in Rolling Stone, Issue 184, April 10, 1975, p....

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Bob Kirsch

["Beautiful Noise"] is one of the most satisfying and commercially viable albums Diamond has come up with in years, an energetic "up" set that showcases more of the Diamond versatility as a singer and songwriter than both of his past Columbia efforts combined….

[The album] opens with two uptempo, goodtime songs. "Beautiful Noise," as well as being the title cut, is an uptempo expression of some of the joys of the city, especially the era of the late '50s and early '60s in New York when Diamond was first beginning to make noise as a songwriter. The LP, incidentally, is loosely based around the personal feelings of Diamond in that period….

"Stargazer," also probably...

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Stephen Holden

In Beautiful Noise, Neil Diamond recollects his days as a scuffling young Tin Pan Alley writer. Though the songs are better crafted than those on Serenade, there remains an enormous disparity between Diamond's sentimental three-chord songs and their portentous interpretations…. If "Beautiful Noise," "Jungletime," and especially "Street Life" and "Surviving the Life" begin to evoke New York clamor and hustle, none conjures the feelings Diamond wants nearly as well as the classic score for West Side Story did. Still, these songs contain the seeds for a possible Broadway revue …

Diamond's ballads "Lady Oh," "If You Know What I Mean," "Signs" and "Home Is a Wounded Heart," repeat...

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Joe Goldberg

Both in conception and delivery, Diamond tends toward melodrama. The spiritual progenitor of some of his most effective numbers, like "I Am … I Said," is the "Soliloquy" from [Richard Rodgers's and Oscar Hammerstein's] Carousel. On a bad day, he can slip over into the sentimentality of a Rod McKuen or the bathos of a Vegas lounge act singing "My Way" after dedicating it to The Chairman of the Board [Frank Sinatra], but he usually manages to keep his head above water. And this time, he's come up with a remarkable record [Beautiful Noise]….

This is by no means a perfect record. Despite the variety of subject and musical approach, the songs have a certain sameness when heard all at...

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Melody Maker

["Love at the Greek"] is "Hot August Nights" part two (or to be more accurate, parts three and four, for this is another live double). The formula is much the same: Diamond performs note-perfect versions of hits old and new, adding only a few grossly sexual "oooohs" and "aaaahs"; predictably, a thousand women go wild in the background. The difference, though, between him and a dozen other middle-of-the-road singers in the same field is that Diamond can write excellent songs, and no matter how unhip the circumstances it's impossible to ignore them. They're strong on melody, usually interesting lyrically (particularly those from "Beautiful Noise", which is, naturally, heavily featured), and, above all, sound modern....

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Peter Reilly

Here's Neil Diamond, the Bard of the American middle class (the "feeling" part, that is), throwing his considerable box-office weight around in another garish album [Love at the Greek], this one recorded before a packed audience at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. The warmth of the appreciation from Diamond's pin-drop-quiet audience as he slobbered his way through something like his five-song tone poem Jonathan Livingston Seagull was probably enough to melt a box of opera creme chocolates on that historic night…. Diamond also runs through such of his other lollipops as Stargazer and The Last Picasso to the uproarious delight and deep-deep feeling of his audience. Just think, they've...

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Ray Coleman

In the good old showbiz tradition of razzamatazz and "Give-us-a-song, Neil" atmosphere invoked by the theme and material of [the movie "The Jazz Singer", in which Diamond stars,] Diamond has risen to the bait with his customary and admirable lack of humility. In fairness, some of the songs are so strong as to stand up completely outside the film; "America" is a majestic piece of heart-pounding nationalism, with tune and lyrics by Neil, sung with all the tub-thumping passion of his early hits, and with a similar beat to "Cracklin' Rosie", which we all know was magnificent.

"Love On The Rocks", co-written by Diamond and Gilbert Becaud, is as simple and as good a song as the throwaway title indicates,...

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Vicki Pipkin

[The movie "The Jazz Singer"] allows Diamond's strength in music to be used extensively, and that helps the sometimes corny musical drama….

[The] interpersonal conflict between [father and son] … provides the best emotional moments of the EMI film in both dialog and music. For example, when his father rents his clothing to mourn the son's "death," a Jewish custom signifying that he has been disowned, Diamond heads for parts unknown, dirty, scuffy, and poignantly delivers "Hello Again" and "Amazed and Confused."

"Love on the Rocks," a powerful ballad in true Diamond style, is done at a studio session where a famous rock singer was to make it uptempo instead….

...

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Jay Cocks

[Neil Diamond] has written and sung some of the smoothest and best contemporary pop, yet he remains a performer in search of a tradition, a megabucks pilgrim looking for roots he never had and a place in which to settle. Rock really is not his neighborhood; his fur-lined melodies and forthright sentimentality make him stand out among rockers like a Couperde Ville at a demolition derby. Diamond has been a smash act in Las Vegas, but he is neither as smooth as Sinatra, as cloying as Wayne Newton nor as annoying as Steve Lawrence.

All this difficulty about categorization and definition sometimes gives even Diamond pause. "I fell between two musical generations," he admits. "I love Sinatra and Eddie...

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Stephen Holden

Neil Diamond's quasi-classical melodies and oratorical vocals evoke a Hollywood Moses gesticulating wildly toward the heavens. This hasn't always been the case. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Diamond was content to churn out cheerful pop-country hits ("Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie") that had no artistic pretensions. But with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, his music became curdled with intellectual self-importance.

On the Way to the Sky is a typically overblown collection of tuneful trifles that aren't nearly as strong as last year's score for The Jazz Singer….

Though Diamond is unfailingly melodic and his booming bass-baritone smolders with...

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Noel Coppage

There's an interesting contrast [in Heartlight] between how seriously Neil Diamond takes himself and how seriously the songs take anything. Collaborating mostly with Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, Diamond has finally managed to recreate the spirit of Tin Pan Alley—in other words, he's recycling the mainstream pop music of 1953.

Ironically, although he has been trying to move uptown for years, Diamond still sings with the real-person earnestness of his Brooklyn roots. Combine that with the too-sophisticated-to-be-sincere nature of the songs, the 1953-style orchestral settings …, and you can imagine my various and not quite compatible reactions. Some of the stuff here is attractive...

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