Wednesday, November 14, 2007

“Solitary Man” / Neil Diamond

I’m on the fence about Neil Diamond. I know plenty of folks who despise him, who see him as a mere commercial hit-machine. Still, like the Four Seasons, he’s too much a part of my life’s soundtrack to reject. “Holly Holy” of course -- I had that song played for me way too much, for obvious reasons – but also “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” (blech), and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (double-blech): a string of overproduced anthems that never seemed sincere, no matter how intense his delivery. But he was a big star, and his music was played all over the radio, and it still sets off a Pavlovian response in me.

At a bat mitzvah a couple weeks ago, I heard a hip-hop-ized version of “Sweet Caroline,” and was appalled. Jeez, I never thought I’d be defending the honor of “Sweet Caroline” (frankly I’m amazed anybody bothered to redo it), but there it was, and it was awful. Shame on somebody.

Then yesterday I heard this 1966 track on the radio, and it took me by surprise. It almost sounded like folk-rock, the arrangement was so restrained (well, restrained for Neil Diamond – mostly guitar and drums and a few tasteful horns, if you don’t count that faint smarmy choir in the chorus). Its tempo ticks along briskly, playing against a backbeat melody, and his voice sounds vulnerable, yearning, engaging. I listened intently the whole way through, and you know what? I liked it.

This is the closest Neil Diamond ever got to Bob Dylan, recounting a string of relationships that fizzled out (leaving him – da-da da da da-da – a solitary man). The verses are all in a brooding minor key, which shifts to major for the chorus: “Don’t know that I will / But until I can find me [nice internal rhyme there] / A girl that’ll stay / Who won’t play games behind me / Then I’ll be what I am / A solitary man.” That restless, critical spirit – how did Neil Diamond lose that later on?

Idealism usually feels overhyped in Neil Diamond songs, but verse two I buy completely: “I’ve had it to here / Being where love’s a small word / Part-time thing / Paper ring.” That almost sounds Beatlesque, doesn’t it? Well, Neil can’t keep it up; he wraps up the verse weakly with “I know it’s been done, / Having one girl to love you / Right or wrong / Weak or strong” – but let’s pretend he meant those last two lines to sound like a cliché, and move on.

Granted, Johnny Cash's cover of this blows Neil's version out of the water. Johnny does it all stripped down, and his gruff vocal is totally convincing as the voice of a disappointed loner. But I don't know, I kinda miss those horns.

The thing is, Neil Diamond had a decent voice and really knew the value of a great hook. I defy you to read the list of song titles above without wanting to sing them out loud. There’s nothing arty or introspective or groundbreaking about Neil Diamond songs; they’re just mainstream American pop, well-crafted and calculated to please. But what’s wrong with that?

Solitary Man sample

1 comment:

Julie said...

I didn't appreciate this song until I heard Johnny's version. It's a solid tune, and Diamond does a good job with it. That said, I'm not a big fan. He did manage to write something good now and then, though.