Graded on a Curve:
Neil Diamond,
Beautiful Noise

Neil Diamond is many things to many people: a God, a histrionic huckster, the best showman since Elvis, the anti-Christ who foisted “Song Sung Blue” upon an innocent public, and the writer of a whole bunch of great songs who slowly descended into the tar pits of treacle like a dinosaur at La Brea. Me, I lean towards the last choice. His early work was great, but he turned into a kitschmeister and sentimental vampire, in which form he has caused much unnecessary human suffering.

Take 1976’s Beautiful Noise. Produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson—which won him an appearance at The Last Waltz, much to the disgust of Robertson’s more discriminating band mates—it led critic Robert Christgau to proclaim, “This is a monstrous record.” Although he went on to concede that “it takes a special kind of chutzpah to create a monster.” “Pop program music” is how he described the music, but I’m sticking with overly sentimental and histrionic; Diamond is the champion of grand gestures, which explains both his popularity and the existential nausea he inspires in people who like their music human-sized. As Christgau said of 1972’s Hot August Night, “it’s obvious that the man is some sort of genius rock entertainer, but for the most part the great entertainer is striving for bad art and not even achieving it.” Ouch.

As for Beautiful Noise, it reveals the mature Diamond to be a caricature of a parody of a satire, with all the authentic soul of an organ grinder’s monkey. The title track makes it plain; this guy doesn’t mean a word he’s saying. Locked away in a penthouse somewhere, I doubt he ever hears the sounds of the city, and if he does, they only irk him, just as the thought of being forever in blue jeans would make him blanch.

I’m not accusing him of being cynical, merely of being a complete corporate construction that produces inauthentic bluster, generally to the accompaniment of strings, horns, and in this case poor Garth Hudson of The Band, whose carnival organ may be the only bearable thing about the song. “What a beautiful noise/Coming into my room/And it’s begging of me/Just to give it a voice.” Right. If this is the sound of the city we should rave every last one of them and then salt the earth. Follow-up “Stargazer” is show biz perky, which is to say it sounds as manufactured for mass consumption as “Beautiful Noise,” and every last horn in New Orleans can’t save it.

“Lady Oh” is a ballad with Robbie Robertson’s guitar written all over it, and as for the bright organ sound, that could be Hudson or Mac Rebennack or any of the five other keyboardists Diamond somehow managed to corral into the studio for this terror weapon of an LP. I’ve heard worse songs, and the saxophone solo is A-Okay with me, but the only truly good thing I can say about it is this: It beats hell out of the fatally cheerful tune, “Don’t Think… Feel” that follows it. The flute is irksome, as is the vaguely Caribbean vibe, but what really gets my goat is that Diamond’s opposition to human thought as opposed to feeling is a transparent attempt to prevent you from utilizing your brain to alert you to the fact that the song you’re listening to truly, truly sucks.

“Surviving the Life” is bearable, another perky tune with Hudson’s superb organ work making it palatable, and I hear echoes in it of the old Diamond, the one who gave us so many great songs. But “You’re alive/You might as well be glad” is hardly a philosophy, or at least one I’m willing to endorse, and when he invites me to “join the family of man,” I just can’t help but say, “How much?” “If You Know What I Mean” is another ballad, but instead of blowing chunks this one lurches inconceivably into beauty, in the form of a chorus that actually raises my spirits and moves me. That chorus is the Diamond of genius, big and splendorous and designed to make you put up your hands in surrender to the man’s obscenely grandiose gifts.

Unfortunately, “Street Life” has all the feel of the real street that “Beautiful Noise” does, which is to say zilch. The urban thread that connects the songs on this album all conspire to make it a fraud, because super-rich and sheltered Diamond knows as much about the real city as, let’s face it, Jed Clampett. The big overbaked horns and the sweeping strings have zero street cred, as does the guy who seems to think they do. As for “Home Is a Wounded Heart,” we’re back in Treacleville, what with its hackneyed lyrics and clichéd strings and the impression they leave, yet again, of a consummate showman reduced to uttering banalities, because he parted ways with his muse a long, long time ago.

The “rocker” “Jungletime” has Diamond encouraging a woman to strut her stuff, and simply reinforces my belief that Diamond has absolutely nothing real to say about urban life. As for “Signs,” it’s slow and pretty and has the stars “speaking out in their mystic language,” which is a nice line. Despite the overdose of strings this one is listenable, Diamond at his mature best. I like the horn solo, but most importantly Diamond sings this one as if he really means it, and it’s more than just a vehicle for his marvelous pipes. “Dry Your Eyes,” with its martial beat and excellent chorus, is the LP’s real winner, and can stand alongside the earlier Diamond’s work. Is it grandiose? Histrionic? Yes, and yes. But those were always Diamond hallmarks, and on this one the artist disappears into the song, rather than simply disappearing into the role of Neil Diamond, consummate entertainer with nothing left to say.

Don’t get me wrong. Beautiful Noise is a terrible album. But snipe and snark as I will, I am not worthy to clean the semen stains from this holy clown’s brown pleather performing pants. For though he has become a man who purveys but the purest schmaltz and treacle yet there is in him the spark of the divine. He once said, “I’m on a mission. I’m on a journey. And it’s a spiritual journey for sure.” Well maybe he is and maybe at some point he got lost, leaving us with monstrosities like “Forever in Blue Jeans” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” Which changes nothing, because there was a time when Diamond bequeathed us diamonds. The man, or God, or anti-Christ, your call, is an unsolvable mystery. He sings it like he means it even when he doesn’t, which is what makes him a riddle wrapped in an enigma and perhaps even a genius—because he does or maybe doesn’t, no matter how awful, mean every single song he sings.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Michael Little

    The guy who wrote this “piece” should be tarred and feathered. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” is one of the greatest songs ever! Signed, The Guy Who Wrote This Piece

    • Michael Little

      And Christ, I didn’t even mention “Song Sung Blue”! The guy who wrote this “review” is a moron!

      Signed, The Guy Who Wrote This Review

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text