Neil Diamond

Melody Road

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Leaving behind Columbia Records along with his latter-day collaborator producer Rick Rubin, Neil Diamond sets up shop at Capitol -- which now belongs to Universal Records, who owns his classic recordings for Uni and MCA -- and teams with producer Don Was for 2014's Melody Road. Diamond may have left his label of 40 years, but in an odd way, Melody Road is a return home after his stark wanderings of the 2000s. Rubin encouraged Diamond to be spare, sometimes recording him with little more than an acoustic guitar, but Was -- who is assisted by Jacknife Lee -- coaxes the singer/songwriter to bring back the schmaltz, an essential element of Neil's glory days that was largely ignored on the Rubin records. Was and Lee retain a hint of that new millennial intimacy -- it's never once as overblown as his '70s records -- but the songs themselves alternate between stately ballads, effervescent bubblegum, and self-important pomp. As on his best '70s records, which Melody Road often resembles in both construction and consistency, Diamond is best when he keeps his ambitions relatively simple. There's majesty on the title track and haunting splendor on "Alone at the Ball," and they find their counterparts in the joyous "Something Blue" and "Marry Me Now," along with the spirited ramble of "First Time." Each of these songs evoke memories of Diamond's peak -- a little bit of "Solitary Man," a little bit of "I Am…I Said," a little bit of "Cherry Cherry" -- while the tedious socially aware slog of "Seongah and Jimmy" and endless ballad "(OOO) Do I Wanna Be Yours" bring back the Diamond that's often forgotten, the Diamond whose LPs often got bogged down in middlebrow aspirations. As much as these weigh down Melody Road, it's also true that there's never been a Neil Diamond record where he doesn't stray into this murky territory. What makes a difference here is the general lightness of his new songs and Was and Lee's sympathetic production; the two play off each other perfectly, turning this into the first latter-day Diamond record to feel quintessentially Neil Diamond.

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