The venerable singer-songwriter, a robust 73, continues his late-career winning streak with Melody Road, his 32nd studio album. It’s a record of firsts – his first LP under a new agreement with Capitol Records following 40+ years with Columbia Records, and his first of original material since 2008’s Home Before Dark. On this 12-track set, Diamond is in a contemplative mood, offering songs of age and experience in his still-resonant voice. But this brooding “solitary man” is now writing and singing from a place of contentment, embracing the sunshine and sentimentality of a life clearly enriched and inspired by his 2012 marriage.
Sonically, Melody Road melds the rootsy acoustic approach of the Rick Rubin-helmed 12 Songs and Home Before Dark with the widescreen orchestrations that were a major part of the Diamond sound in previous years. Significantly, though, Diamond’s guitar is still out front as on those two albums, and the “back to basics” style still prevails under the auspices of producers Don Was (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) and Jacknife Lee (R.E.M., Snow Patrol, Taylor Swift). He’s joined by a cast of musicians including Joey Waronker on drums, Richard Bennett and Smokey Hormel on guitars, and Benmont Tench and Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, plus The Waters on backing vocals and longtime associate Alan Lindgren for string arrangements. With these talents bringing his new works alive, Diamond’s craft as a songwriter remains undiminished, and Melody Road radiates the light in which he seems to be basking. As a result, it’s a less stark collection than either 12 Songs or Home Before Dark. But despite lacking the grit of those two albums, Melody Road still feels like the conclusion of a trilogy, or the light at the end of the tunnel.
The warm, inviting title track (“Melody from the heart/Melody from the start/Telling me things will be okay/I think that I just might stay/On Melody Road…”) bookends the album. With its “Song Sung Blue” lilt, it’s a balm that sets the tone for this sunny and frequently autobiographical album. Despite song titles like “Something Blue” and “Nothing But a Heartache,” Diamond is upbeat on this trip down Melody Road. The former is, simply, classic Neil Diamond. One of many songs here inspired by and directed to his new wife, it’s an expression of what the artist calls “the accident of love.” It’s set to a gentle bounce strummed on guitars and banjo with bass and brushed percussion, subtle horns, and a rollicking piano solo. One can easily see this perky pop gem taking a clap-along place at a future Diamond show. (He’s embarking on a major tour in 2015.) As for the impassioned, intense “Heartache,” its full-throated delivery is reminiscent of “Beautiful Noise” crossed with “I Am…I Said.” In it, a genuine-sounding Diamond paints love as one’s personal savior, or a light from the darkness. Sharp electric guitar adds to the textures on this track, the album’s dramatic centerpiece.
New wife Katie McNeil is also the likely recipient of the gently romantic “(Ooo) Do I Wanna Be Yours” and the straightforward, amiable “Marry Me Now,” on which low, oom-pah brass turns into an exultant, almost-Dixieland revel. As ever, Diamond is wholly believable even when espousing a simple sentiment like “Marriage is not an easy thing/But look at all the joy it brings…” The aura of sweetness continues on the appealing “Sunny Disposition.” “She had a sunny disposition/He had a cloud that never went away,” sings the famous loner in this heartfelt, third-person story song.
Other tracks on Melody Road look to Diamond’s past rather than present. The singer sounds like a man reborn on the upbeat, guitar-driven splendor of “First Time,” a note of encouragement to those just starting out. “Alone at the Ball” is a more pointed “word to the wise” from someone who’s been there. Diamond is likewise in reflective mode on the sad, ironically uptempo “In Better Days.” He’s touching as he revisits a past relationship in loving if conflicted terms: “Why do we promise forever and never stay that long? Why do we swear to care until we die? And what does it mean when two lovers sing a loving song/Then move along and not know why?” When listening to this confessional track, it’s hard not to think of the singer’s 26-year marriage to his wife Marcia, which ended amicably in divorce in 1995.
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The album’s most offbeat moment is “Seongah and Jimmy,” another song that seems to have great personal resonance for Diamond. A cross-cultural love story (she’s from Korea, he’s from Long Island) set in his native Brooklyn, the lengthy composition features some of his most oddly specific lyrics: “She wants her masters/He helps her study/He has a toothache/She finds a dentist/He says, I love you/She knows he means it.” The effect almost takes the listener out of the song, yet it’s clear that Diamond is trying to find the poetry in the mundane as he paints a vivid picture of the daily existence of his two characters. “Love happens in Brooklyn,” he concludes. “I lived there long ago, and nothing’s changed,” he asserts over a bed of strings and laconic horns that eventually explode into a grandiosity otherwise absent from the album. The earnest song isn’t wholly fulfilling, but it brings into sharp focus Diamond’s ambitions for Melody Road and its musings on the faces of love in all its many forms.
Before the closing reprise of “Melody Road,” Diamond offers a stately, low-key rumination on “The Art of Love.” When he sings in wizened tones, “The art of love is who you share it with,” there’s no doubt he’s sharing a belief in which he’s invested. The songs on Melody Road certainly seem interconnected enough to form a suite, and “The Art of Love” restates the theme with restrained eloquence. By the album’s conclusion, it’s hard not to share in Diamond’s happiness and bright outlook, and indeed, many of these melodies are take-home tunes that instantly lodge in the brain and refuse to leave.
What path will Neil Diamond travel after Melody Road? It’s difficult to tell. On this big-hearted record, he’s found a happy medium between the unembellished, solemn beauty of his earliest years and the glittery grand scale of his most anthemic songs. But whichever Diamond you prefer, a trip down Melody Road should beckon you.