Columbia records billed Neil Diamond's Three Chord Opera as his first album of all-original material in 27 years (since 1974's Serenade), which was true, but deceptive. Diamond wrote most of his songs for most of his career, but often included cover songs on his albums. It would be more accurate to describe Three Chord Opera as Diamond's first straightforward album in a decade, since he followed 1991's Lovescape with a series of all-covers albums, hits compilations, Christmas albums, and live recordings; his last album containing mostly (co-written) originals was 1996's country-oriented Tennessee Moon. However you date Diamond's songwriting lay-off, though, the expectation is that the result will be a more personal statement than his recent albums, and it is, at least in part. Diamond begins with "I Haven't Played This Song in Years," a melancholy breakup song, and he returns to the theme of romantic loss on "Midnight Dream" and "A Mission of Love," while even the songs of apparently contented love ("I Believe in Happy Endings," "You Are the Best Part of Me," "My Special Someone") are dark around the edges. But Diamond is too conscious of pop conventions to devote a whole record to one mood, and, unable to break through a tendency toward cliché, he isn't really capable of writing a sustained self-examination anyway. So, he varies the tone with novelty songs like "At the Movies" and "Baby Let's Drive," and turns to unabashed sentiment on the lullaby "Elijah's Song" and the religious "Leave a Little Room for God." When Diamond joined with songwriting collaborators in the early '80s, his compositions became more homogenous, but less embarrassing, while his '90s work fostered the impression of him as a non-writing performer. Three Chord Opera is the old Neil Diamond, a wildly uneven writer with a certain ingratiating style.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann