Neil Diamond, a bona fide American treasure and longtime contributor to the songwriter archetype, experienced a resurgence last decade with the Rick Rubin produced one-two punch of 12 Songs and Home Before Dark. The latter earned him his first number-one record in the UK, nearly five decades into his career. Both albums took the same approach Rubin had tried to such great success with Johnny Cash; for the most part they were just the man and a guitar or piano accompaniment. And now, aged 70, Diamond has recorded Dreams, a collection of covers from “the rock era”.
These are the songs that influenced Diamond as a youngster in Brooklyn, and alongside a bare (and often barren) backdrop, he channels all his velvety baritone into making them his own whilst managing to pay trembling homage to the originals. As a whole, Dreams is a bleak affair, Diamond sounding often forlorn and beaten, most notably on a morose, slowed down reimagining of his own 1966 tune, I’m A Believer, which became The Monkees‘ biggest success. But Diamond doesn’t sound much like a believer; rather, he’s got the downtrodden sound of a man who’s loved and lost and longs to believe again despite the evidence.
Dreams works best when Diamond manages to strike a chord of emotional resonance with his adopted material. The underrated Harry Nilsson ballad, Don’t Forget Me rings true in a way that feels almost overwhelming in its emotional intensity (and the effect is heightened by the melodramatic inclusion of a carnival-esque horn section), Diamond coming across as an aging and introspective sage. Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah is in good hands with Diamond, his nearly whispered baritone accompanied by a single electric guitar and it stands out as the album’s finest moment.
But Dreams also falls flat in places. Diamond’s version of The Beatles‘ Blackbird feels overwrought, lacking the looseness and spontaneity of the original. Here, a winsome fiddle joins the mix, lending the recording a feel that’s at once down-home and a bit crowded. The Bill Withers classic Ain’t No Sunshine is stripped of nearly all its soul, but Diamond replaces it with a different sort of longing, injecting it with a quieter, more reserved sort of remorse. And The Eagles‘ Desperado comes across as nearly farcical in its forced melancholy.
In recording this collection of covers, Neil Diamond has taken a chance. He’s lent his trademark sound to words that aren’t his own, and he’s allowed himself to come across as wholly vulnerable. Sure, at times the music in Dreams feels right at home among the rest of Diamond’s catalogue, and there are also moments here that don’t quite work. But even the failures here are magnificent failures, high-wire acts of daring bravado and fragile intensity that demand a close listen.