Home Before Dark is Neil Diamond's second collaboration with producer Rick Rubin. It follows the fine but ill-fated 12 Songs, which was sabotaged by Sony's "Rootkit" program scandal: a nefarious bit of "copy protection" software that invaded the operating system of PCs and wreaked havoc. 12 Songs had to be recalled from store shelves just as Diamond received better reviews than he had in a decade. Sony reissued it in 2007, but the damage was done. Diamond, disappointed but undaunted, sought out Rubin. Rubin enlisted Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and lead guitarist Mike Campbell, studio guitarist/bassist Smokey Hormel, and former Chavez guitar slinger Matt Sweeney. There are no drums. David Campbell did some skeletal string arrangements, but that's it. In addition, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks duets on the track "Another Day (That Time Forgot)." Home Before Dark is a more exposed Diamond than listeners have ever heard. He's out there, bashing on his guitar and singing from a position of extreme vulnerability; he's on a wire without a net. His musicians understand what is so dynamically and poetically evident in the songs, and use painterly care in adorning them. Diamond is not a young man anymore and, thankfully, he doesn't write like one -- though he sounds lean and hungry for something just out of reach. "Forgotten" has a rock & roll progression worthy of his Bang singles. Its lyric reflects the travails of a protagonist whose heart bears hurt without the grace and wisdom that age is supposed to bring. The grain in his voice is fierce; it quavers just a bit in the refrain, and Sweeney's electric guitar nails it to the wall. It follows "One More Bite of the Apple," another rollicking rocker, but this one is about reuniting with his true beloved -- songwriting itself.
Home Before Dark contains some beautiful love songs, too. "If I Don't See You Again," the album's opener, reflects the bittersweet aftertaste of lost love. It's classic Diamond. His character converses with a reflection, a ghost. The gorgeously crafted instrumental bridge and the sense of loneliness in the protagonist's voice combine seamlessly. The album's first single is "Pretty Amazing Grace." Diamond sings a prayer of gratitude for rescue and restoration, whether to Divine Providence, his lover, or both; we don't know. His infectious, haunting melody is jarring, played in minor chords by fingerpicked steel-string guitars and anchored by a standup bass. Tench's piano adds tension just before the refrain where the guitars get punchy flamenco-style and break it wide open. Strings decorate the backdrop, as the lyric juxtaposes the present against the past, not as contrast but as progression. The duet with Maines, "Another Day (That Time Forgot)," has shadowy traces of the gentle but brooding intensity of the intro to "Holly Holy" in the chord progression. It's a joint confession between lovers who are lost to one another; the tragedy is they have no idea how they grew apart. Tench's piano improv fills the space between verses; he underscores the melancholy gorgeously. "The Power of Two," with multi-tracked, entwining acoustic guitar lines by Campbell, is an artful framework for one of Diamond's protagonists to realize that he finally has the ability and courage to embrace another fully, and to allow himself to become a part of love instead of remaining apart from it. Home Before Dark is a less "civilized" album than anything Diamond's done before. It is a stark and moving portrait of what an accepted artist found when he reached all the way down to face his fear, doubt, and knowledge, and brought the discovery into his work. Diamond proves not only that can he still write great songs, but also that he can deliver them with toughness and grit as an expression of real beauty.