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New Moon Rising
A review of Neil Diamond's new Album, Tennessee Moon
by Joseph G. Mitzen
Ask any avid follower of Neil Diamond's music and career, and they'll tell you that somewhere along the way he made a turn off of a 'Brooklyn Road', went the wrong way down a 'Memphis Street'. While it may have been a long time since Neil's songs were at the top of contemporary charts, for the last few years many of his albums have not met with critical acclaim from his fans, either.
While support from Neil's base of fans has remained steady throughout his changes from bubblegum rock to introspective poetry to show-stopping ballads, Neil's most recent manifestation has caused the most difficulty with his followers - that of Neil Diamond, Living Legend. It would seem that the more Neil Diamond became enmeshed in the Hollywood culture, the more Neil Diamond the man became lost in Neil Diamond the pop icon, with detrimental results.
On February 6, 1996, Neil Diamond released his latest album, 'Tennessee Moon'. Neil Diamond spent a year in Nashville writing and recording these songs. The first thing that appears when one opens the insert is a photomontage of the numerous songwriters and musicians who collaborated on the album, including such greats as Waylon Jennings and Chet Atkins. Had the Brooklyn-boy-turned-L.A.-boy gone country? Rest assured, nowhere in this 18 song, 67 minute collection does Neil tell us about his achy-breaky heart, although his dog does die. What fans will be greeted with is a set of invigorating tunes and heartfelt ballads that mark a return to Neil Diamond's earlier folk rock days. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the King of Pop is back. In this album Neil Diamond does not only toss his hat back into the ring, he delivers a few knock-out blows as well. With its fantastic tunes and cross-genre appeal, it stands not only a chance of being a big commercial success, but being one of the best Diamond albums as well.
The first tune is 'Tennessee Moon'. One needs only listen to the opening lines of this middle-of-the-road, simplistic yet catchy ballad to find that it serves superbly to set the theme for the songs which follow. What it also does in those lines is let us feel undeniably that it is Neil himself who is speaking to us, and saying something important. 'Hollywood don't do what it once could do/ Used to wake up and write me a song before noon/ So I packed my dusty bags one night/ Grabbed an old guitar and I caught a red-eye flight/ In search of a dream underneath a Tennessee Moon'. The ghost of 'Back In L.A.' is exorcised and we know we're in for a treat. Eventually, the song changes from talking about Neil and Tennessee to an ode of sorts to Hank Williams. It might be a bit strange at first to hear Neil singing about Hank and jambalaya, but its sentimental nostalgia is infectious.
The next song is 'One Good Love', a duet with Waylon Jennings. This duet is 180 degrees opposite to Neil's last duet with a country star, when he sang 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' with Dolly Parton on the 'Up On The Roof' album. Somewhere, for some reason, someone had said, 'The Great Growler and the Great Chirper - together at last.' That turned into not only Diamond's least memorable duet, but one of his worst recordings ever. Between the growling and the chirping it sounded like a pet shop.
In contrast, 'One Good Love' is a duet because it works and was something both artists wanted to do (Jennings is a friend of Diamond's), not a potluck stab at creating a single. Diamond and Jennings' voices blend harmoniously together and each man's style contributes, but does not clash, in the solo parts. The song itself has an irresistible tune and the lyrics are soulful and beautiful, speaking of a person's search for happiness, and realizing that with 'one good love' everything changes. 'With just one touch you can forget/ a thousand empty nights/ You can search the world for happiness/ and never get enough/ And all you really need to find/ is one good love.'
'Shame' is a bit more reminiscent of older country music. It is sung with Hal Ketchum, but not as a duet. 'Shame' is marked with a somewhat martial beat for the verses. It concerns some unnamed deed or characteristic of the woman sung about, but a commitment on the part of the singer to 'see this thing through', because 'There ain't no shame in loving you'. The chorus is not as catchy as the verses but does an adequate job. Neil must have been living near a train station, because this song, as well as 'Tennessee Moon', makes reference to whistles making a 'lonesome moan' - unfortunately, no references to 'beautiful noise', however. 'Shame' is not the best song on the CD, but is a decent one and certainly one worth listening to.
'A Matter Of Love' is the first big country rocker on the CD and sports one of the largest collection of instruments on the album. There's no storyline here, just a rockin' bunch of love talk, which is all it sets out to be, and does it very well. The music is irresistible and Diamond delivers the energy perfectly. A highlight is that he does this (and all the songs on the album) without the hoarse growl that has become his staple of late. This song is a lot of fun and is the first time in a decade Diamond fans are treated to a rocker without smashing drums and electric guitar. After catching the fiddle solo, you will finally be convinced that the fiddle is a genuine instrument and not a silly way of playing the violin. This tune will most definitely be featured in his concert tour.
'Marry Me', sung with Buffy Lawson, is nothing that Diamond ballad buffs have not heard before. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with it, just that there is little to distinguish it from the zillion or so ballads Diamond has cranked out since 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers'. That said, Lawson does a capable job (again, this song is not really a duet). The choruses with Lawson's background singing sound nice. In all, a satisfactory entry into the Diamond ballad brigade.
Another love ballad follows, 'Deep Inside Of You', sung with Beth Nielson Chapman, the co-writer. If 'Marry Me' had little to distinguish it from other Diamond ballads, 'Deep Inside Of You' has even less to distinguish it from 'Marry Me'. Again, the words are suitably poetic 'You run through my heart like the words of a bittersweet song', but standard love song fare, nothing less, nothing more. Chapman turns in a decent performance, although on Diamond's Good Morning America performance Feb. 16, the song was done with Linda Press, who seemed to come across better (of course, the two have had years of experience doing love songs together). Once again, the song is average and will certainly not go down in history as the best Diamond ballad ever made. But don't give up hope - better ballads are on the way (although 'One Good Love' is definitely one of the best on the CD).
Neil picks up the pace again with 'Gold Don't Rust'. While not as wild as 'A Matter Of Love', its words and tune perhaps grab hold of the listener a bit more. While not a 'Cherry, Cherry', Neil once again reveals an ability to come up with tunes you can't get out of your head. The song finds the singer assuring his significant other that he won't stray: 'Gold don't rust/ Love don't lie/ I'll be true/ 'Til the day that I die'. Those looking for Shakespearean lyrics should inquire elsewhere, but those wanting a musical experience that draws you in and takes you away have found the right place.
'Like You Do' is the only song on the album Neil didn't write or co-write. Those wondering why Neil felt the desire to reach outside for this song need only hear it for the answer. 'Like You Do' is a fantastic ballad sung with Rosemary Butler. About the entire song consists of the singer describing things which love is not, and stating that those are things the subject of the song does: 'Love never doubts, or suffers, or cries/ Love shows no fear, love tells no lies/ and love would never leave me in the dark/ No, love never breaks my heart/ Like you do/ Like you do'. The song reaches a climax twice that comes across as beautiful and emotional. The sentiment of someone talking to a person they love, yet who hurts them, comes across powerfully. Unlike the last two ballads, this song can stand with some of the best Diamond love songs for its haunting feeling.
Next, Neil tops this fantastic performance by following it with the best rocker on the album, 'Can Anybody Hear Me'. This song was performed on the American Music Awards and not very well on Letterman. It is the first single from the album, and justifiably so. This song's tune takes hold of the listener from the opening strains and forces him or her to start tapping their feet and nodding their head. This song ideally capitalizes on Diamond's singing style. While the lyrics may have even less meaning than the other two rockers, they just sound... Diamond. 'When you find love hold on tight/ Don't ever waste another night/ You're going to make it through in spite of your fears' With the use of background singers and crescendos, one can't deny it is one of Neil's songs. Here again the fiddle is used, but this time subtly and entrancingly. You don't need to have seen either of the performances of this song to clearly see Diamond cupping his hand to his ear for the line 'Can any! bo! dy hear me?' and scanning the audience for 'Is anybody out there?' and there is no doubt of the enthusiastic shouts that will follow. This song is a winner.
Which brings us to tune number ten, 'Win the World'. This slow song's music or performance isn't anything special, but here it is the lyrics that carry it through admirably. The song concerns the singer 'always trying to win the world' and ignoring his woman whom he has now lost, who was 'only trying to win my love'. Take the theme of 'This Time', remove any mention of a hope of reconciliation, infinitely improve the lyrics, and change the music to more of a country ballad, and you have the idea. The song is quite solid and works well.
'No Limit' is co-written with former Diamond guitarist Richard Bennett. Having mentioned that, I need to state emphatically and immediately that absolutely nowhere in this song is there a mention of a desire to contiuously wear bluejeans (referring to the most notable song Bennett co-wrote with Diamond, 'Forever In Bluejeans', notable only for the fact that Neil inexplicably sings it over and over). 'No Limit' is a bit hard to describe. Musically, it is composed of solely drums and guitar and has a compelling, jazzy tune. Lyrically, it ranks about even with 'River Runs, Newgrown Plums'. Actually, this forms a nice juxtaposition with 'Win the World', where its principle feature was the lyrics. So, pay no attention to 'Get on board/ Check it out/ Look around/ Ain't no limit to what love allows/ You and me/ Let it be/ Be just fine/ No limit to it anytime'. Just stomp your feet and clap your hands, because that's what Neil and Rich want you to do here.
'Reminisce For A While' is one of the longest songs on the album. This is unfortunate, because it has neither lyrics nor music to recommend it. It is sung with co-writer Raul Malo. Unfortunately, it could just as well not have been, for all that this does for the song. The music is not only simplistic and predictable but annoyingly slow and waltzy. This song makes me long for the days of records, if only for the fact that I could speed up the turntable and try putting a bit more life into the tune. Those who found the 'Up On the Roof' version of 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' unbearably slow will find this song a close second. One line of the song is 'I know I could not forget my time with you'. That sums up the entire song, as the rest of the formulaic lyrics merely repeat that theme over and over. I'd advise that those who want to hear Neil reminisce skip this track and listen to 'Honey Drippin' Times' or 'Brooklyn Roads' instead, unless you have a spare four and a half minutes you'd like to make feel like ten - a boring ten. Editors note: he's right, this is the least good song on the album, skip it.
Those with the fortitude to survive 'Reminisce For A While' are well rewarded when one of Diamond's most popular '60s songs, 'Kentucky Woman', puts in an unexpected but welcome appearance. Basically, nothing much about the song has changed other than removing most of the chorus between the repeated third verse. The only quibble is that on a few brief occasions near the end, the music becomes a bit strong. While it doesn't top the original version, 'Kentucky Woman' is as excellent as ever and serves as a connection between this album and the Diamond hits of the past.
'If I Lost My Way' follows 'Kentucky Woman'. Almost but not quite a ballad, this song is touching and strong. It concerns the singer pondering if he lost his way, lost his dreams, would the person he loves still have faith in him, 'Could it be the me that you believed in/ Is all you really need to make you stay'. The verses are emotionally charged and have the bare minimum musical accompaniment, then the music and background singers join in for the sweeping chorus. Diamond delivers the words with both force and sadness and it is no doubt but that the sentiments expressed are personal. This is not a song to be missed.
'Everybody' is co-written with Neil's son, Jesse. The song is the most original on the album, one of the most interesting, and perhaps the all-around best out of the eighteen. It defies easy categorization, but is this not to be expected from a Diamond-Diamond collaboration? The music changes both tempo and instruments several times throughout the three and three-quarter minute piece. The song seems to speak of that loneliness and need for love so common to earlier Diamond songs, yet at the same time there is a sadness, as if this was a love that could not be realized; feelings that had been hidden or denied, yet there is an undeniable feeling between the two. As with many good Diamond works, the exact meaning can be debated and there might be hidden deeper significances, but what can not be denied is the excellence of this song. It evokes, for some subtle reason, shades of 'Modern Day Version of Love'. The music is largely guitar, although a fiddle solo works its way in twice (and yet this song has the least country flavor of them all). While the words and music are superb, Diamond's rendition contains so much feeling that that alone would be capable of causing the feelings that well up in the listener. After hearing this song, you can not resist playing it several times over again. If only one song could be heard from Tennessee Moon, this would be the obvious choice. If Neil and Jesse are capable of consistently producing this caliber of song together, Diamond will have no problem producing gold records another thirty years from now (he'll be rolled out onto stage as 'Wheels' Diamond, and still be putting kids a quarter of his age to shame as he rocks to 'Brother Love' and 'Holly Holy'.....)
Speaking of an old Neil, and the old Neil, we find Neil talking about both in 'Talking Optimist Blues (Good Day Today)'. I remember my big disappointment as I first viewed Tennessee Moon's song list that it didn't include Neil's definitive country parody, 'You're So Sweet (Horseflies Keep Hanging Round Your Face)'. That disappointment turned to joy when I heard this song co-written with Gretchen Peters. This song will have anyone who hears it rolling on the floor laughing in seconds. Hear we have the singer lamenting all the problems facing him, 'Over-taxed and alimonied/ tired of eating fried baloney', yet resolving to have 'A good day today'. Many times the narrator is unmistakably Neil, which makes the song that much more funny. When the lines 'Bank account is overdrawn/ Out of Prozac, hairline's gone' played, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes. This song may be short, but it is oh-so-sweet.
'Open Wide These Prison Doors' involves a breakup between two people, but is not condemning as in 'Like You Do'. The singer is somewhat resentful that things are over, and still has feelings for the other person, but realizes that things just can't be, things have changed, and that he must be 'set free'. With the flowing style of the lyrics, it feels like reading a diary or personal letter rather than a commercial song. It is almost impossible not to interpret the song as referring to Neil's recent divorce. In general, an excellent all-around song.
The final song on this album is 'Blue Highway', with Chet Atkins doing background vocals and playing guitar. If Tennessee Moon was the perfect song to introduce the album, no other song but 'Blue Highway' could close it. Here we have Neil saying good-bye to the big city, 'So-long confusion/ It's time to slow things down/ Say good-bye to my old friends/ Ease on out of town/ Made me some money here/ I paid for every day/ And every mile just makes me smile/ Because I made my getaway'. As Neil talks about leaving 'this sorry town' in which he's stayed too long, taking the 'Blue highway', maybe visiting Tennessee, again as in the first song this seems to symbolically refer to L.A./Hollywood and what it represents. Done in classic old country style, one can see Neil with his faded bluejeans (well, Richard Bennett DID play some guitar on this one), boots and black leather jacket, black guitar with the red stars slung over his shoulder (if you can't imagine this, simply look on the cover, because that's the image in the photo), the Solitary Man trudging off down the dusty road into the sunset, and right before he fades from view... begins whistling a little tune.
It was brought up by the host of Good Morning America that Neil remarked to a staff member that once his tour was over, he would have to take some time off and think about what he would do for the rest of his life. Neil tried to dodge this one and deny any retirement suggestions, but one wonders whether Neil is marching off down that Blue Highway on to greater musical success or whether his leaving this town and rolling down that dusty road is his way of saying he's done his bit and is moving on to other things. Even if this album were his last say before he moved on, what a mouthful it is. Like George Foreman, Neil heard words like 'washed up' from critics for years, then in a surprise upset none of the 'experts' thought would happen, comes along with a piece of work that not only shows him to be in as good a form as ever, it shows that he is still the champ with no peer or worthwhile competition.
Yes, wherever he's off to or whatever he's up to, the black-clad Solitary Man must be letting a little smile slip past his lips... once his back is turned.
'Got a letter from Sixty Minutes Say they want to put me in it Tell me my career just died Years ago I might have cried Now I'm just too old to do it May be true, but screw it anyway.' -Talking Optimist Blues (Good Day Today)
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