March 15, 2011

Neil Diamond's Big Bang

Having paid his dues in and around New York City’s fabled Brill Building—where collaborators like Leiber and Stoller as well as Goffin and King composed hit after hit for a multitude of artists—Neil Diamond recognized early on that he’d have to work a lot harder than most to excel on his own.

The Bang Sessions 1966-1968 (Sony Legacy), which covers the just-inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s formative cuts on the Bang Records label, demonstrates just how well he succeeded in his efforts. A veritable masterclass in pop songcraft, this 23-track set reveals Diamond at his hungriest, a young artist whose dogged ambition was only surpassed by the consistency with which he created these instant and enduring classics.

Beginning with “Solitary Man,” still one of his most brooding meditations, Diamond conveys a distinctly adult disposition that gives even his most-joyous moments some sense of pragmatic despair or urgency. Indeed, songs like “Cherry, Cherry” or “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” come not from the perspective of some Lothario without a care in the world, but instead of an everyday guy with just about every care in the world who looks to love as refuge.

Heck, listeners only familiar with UB40’s reggae-light cover of “Red, Red Wine” may have missed its basic premise altogether. On the slower-paced original, Diamond is damn-near distraught, turning to the bottle not just for companionship in his loneliest hour but rather to get plastered as a means to cope.

More-obscure cuts like “I’ll Come Running” and “You’ll Forget”—the trippy organ refrain on the latter recalling Ray Manzarek’s spindly flourishes—reflect the experimental influence of their era. While the thick, unctuous blues of “The Time is Now” brims with the sort of swagger that would underscore Diamond’s powerhouse performances on the concert stage in the years and decades to follow. For whatever reasons Diamond didn't make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until now, consider The Bang Sessions Exhibit One as to why he’s long since belonged there.