As anyone familiar with Neil Diamond’s career knows, he’s had more hits that could possibly fit onto a single CD. But drawing across his stints on Bang, Uni, Capitol (for which he recorded the soundtrack to The Jazz Singer) and Columbia, this twenty-three track set shows Diamond’s maturation from Brill Building songwriter to hit-making singer to worldwide superstar to reinvented elder statesman. Of course, given the set’s non-chronological programming, you’ll only hear the actual arc of his artistic development if you reprogram the tracks as 12, 4, 9, 10, 16, 21, 20, 18, 6, 11, 21, 7, 5, 13, 8, 17, 2, 14, 1, 3, 15, 22, 23, 19. If you play the set as-is, you’ll start near the end of Diamond’s hit-making career with 1978’s “Forever in Blue Jeans” and spin through a few other 1970s releases before jumping back to 1966’s “Cherry, Cherry.”
Given the focus on hits, it’s easy to excuse the great album tracks left behind, but the inclusion of lesser sides in place of the hits “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” “Longfellow Serenade” and “Heartlight” is surprising. The mix of Top 10s, Adult Contemporary hits (“Beautiful Noise”), low-charting singles that were hits for other artists (“I’m a Believer” and “Red Red Wine”) and latter-day sides with Rick Rubin (“Pretty Amazing Grace” and “Hell Yeah”) covers the breadth and depth of his career, but the muddled timeline and interweaving of mono Bang-era tracks with modern stereo productions is without obvious purpose. Segueing from the 1980’s “Love on the Rocks” to hard-rocking guitars of “Cherry, Cherry” is awkward, as is the mood shift from 1972’s “Play Me” to 1967’s bubblegum-soul “I’m a Believer.”
Despite the set’s odd characteristics, Diamond shines as a talented songwriter who learned early on how to write a hook, and a dramatic vocalist with a memorable voice. He’s been well-served by arrangers and producers who fit his voice into a variety of contexts – guitar-charged rock, organ-backed soul, contemporary pop and huge productions that echo the operatic grandeur of Roy Orbison. Diamond’s song-by-song notes are peppered with interesting recollections and generous sharing of credit with his many exceptional co-workers. It may surprise casual fans to find that he co-wrote with Marilyn and Alan Bergman, was produced by Robbie Robertson, and recorded several of his biggest hits in Memphis at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio.
Noting the missing chart entries, as well as the terrific list price, this is a good single-disc sketch of Diamond’s career as a hit maker, but it’s only a sketch, and only a sketch of his hits. It balances his years at Bang (seven tracks), Uni (seven), Columbia (six) and Capitol (three), and plays well for those wishing to relive the artist’s most familiar songs. The two Rick Rubin-produced cuts, “Pretty Amazing Grace” and “Hell Yeah,” show Diamond still vital and growing in his fifth decade of recording. Still, a career as rich as Diamond’s can’t really be condensed onto one disc; even the three-disc In My Lifetime left fans arguing about what was missing. A more complete picture of Diamond’s early years can be heard by picking up The Bang Years: 1966-1968 and Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings… Plus!, and his Columbia years are well represented on original album reissues and several anthologies. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]