It’s probably fair to say that Neil Diamond isn’t and probably never has been cool. He’s also never achieved the critical acclaim of contemporaries like Neil Young and James Taylor and is seen by many as the archetypal middle of the road singer-songwriter.
Nevertheless, anyone who’s sold over 130 million albums worldwide during a 50 year plus career and penned tunes as universally known as Sweet Caroline and I’m A Believer is clearly doing something right, and this 14-track classic song collection recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra will doubtless delight Diamond’s many fans.
Classic Diamonds features new vocals from the man himself, paired with updated musical interpretations of his most celebrated chart-topping hits. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios and Diamond’s studio in Los Angeles, the album was produced by Grammy-winning producer/arranger Walter Afanasieff and co-arranged by Afanasieff and Grammy-winning conductor/arranger William Ross, who also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the recording.
He may not be groundbreaking, but Diamond sure can knock out a tune. The songs here will be very familiar to many, but the lush, ornate accompaniments by the London Symphony Orchestra add further grandeur to choruses that already soar.
The tone is set right from the start with the sweepingly cinematic strings and joyous horns of opening track Beautiful Noise, which transforms the original from a rather tinny romp into an epic celebration of sensory pleasure. I’m A Believer’s shapeshift from uplifting pop to wine bar crooning is less successful, but Classic Diamonds hits the spot again with a beautifully elegant September Morn, which features some delicious harmonica and woodwind.
Other songs are closer to the originals simply because the arrangements already had an orchestral setting. Diamond, Afanasieff and Ross recognise this, so a track like America – already a big, widescreen affair – develops the existing dynamics rather than reconstructing them entirely. Similarly, they are careful not to over-egg Love On The Rocks, to ensure it retains its melancholy character.
The album closes – inevitably – with Sweet Caroline. It’s a nigh on impossible task to breathe new life into one of the ultimate singalong anthems, so Diamond doesn’t even try and opts to just throw the kitchen sink at it instead, with a martial drumbeat and bombastic horn flourishes building up inexorably to a chorus so ingrained in popular culture that even a Mongolian goat herder would be able to hum it.
Diamond himself is pushing 80, but still sounds in fine voice and is clearly having a ball on a collaboration that, while hardly radically reimagining his back catalogue, undeniably suits it very well. Classic Diamonds may be syrupier than a super-sized stack of American pancakes, but it’s also impossible to resist wolfing down as a deliciously guilty pleasure.