30 August 2008

Neil Diamond - If I Don't See You Again

Neil Diamond’s 2008 album, Home Before Dark, opens with its best song. He didn’t choose the single with the catchy but annoying name, Pretty Amazing Grace (it’s good isn’t it – you don’t like it, but it’s good) as its first track; nor did he choose the title track as song number one. Instead, he went for the nearest song the record has to an ‘epic’ – the seven minute If I Don’t See You Again, a work of simplicity and elegance which evokes all of the best work from Diamond’s career.

It is said that having produced Johnny Cash’s last few albums, helping create that trademark powerful American acoustic sound, Rick Rubin actively wooed Neil Diamond, to persuade him to let Rubin produce him too. The initial result was the album 12 Songs, and Home Before Dark is their follow-up album. Some people will undoubtedly have sniffed at the idea of Rubin, for many the epitome of cool, approaching that walking Brooklyn-LA cliché, Neil Diamond. But listening to If I Don’t See You Again, perhaps they can begin to see what the attraction was.

Starting with what seems at first to be a hesitant guitar pattern, Diamond swiftly transforms that sense of uncertainty into what it really was all along: a stately and respectful initiation into the world of lost love. He eschews angst and rejects the temptation to engage in hand-wringing; instead he lets the song do the talking. Similarly, and it seems a strange point to make, his diction is near-perfect. Every word is given its due space, without ever being swallowed or deprived of half of its sound, because Diamond’s story is a precise one. Lose half of it, and you lose the essence of it. There are no spare sentiments here, and there are no superfluous words – no yeahs, no oohs, none of the posturing that can give pop performance its edge, but which can give pop and rock songwriters an easy way out when they can’t think of what to say, when they don’t know what they mean to say.

There are very few songwriters alive who wouldn’t benefit from a small dose of this sort of discipline, which was probably instilled in Diamond in his days as a jobbing songwriter on Tin Pan Alley – where only the finest, most rounded songs found their way out of the Brill Building into the charts, in the hands of the public’s latest flavour of the month. All the way through If I Don’t See You Again, Diamond’s phrasing and lyrical sense bring to mind his earliest songs, full of a concise eloquence which told you all that you wanted to know about the song’s characters. Songs like Solitary Man:

I’ve had it to here being where love’s a small word
Part-time thing, papering
I know it’s been done having one girl who loves you
Right or wrong, weak or strong

Don’t know that I will, but until I can find me
A girl that will stay and won’t play games behind me
I’ll be what I am
Solitary man

In a similar way, in If I Don’t See You Again, Diamond tells it like it is, but more than that, he tells it as if he is telling like it is. In other words, listening to this song is like sitting down and being told personally by Diamond how he feels. Even the odd line which doesn’t ring quite so naturally, in actual fact adds to the sense of genuine occurrence and feeling, as when you think about it, when they’re telling such a sad and emotional story, who gets it out in word-perfect fashion? We probably want to say “This is the perfect time to go”, but sometimes we won’t get it right – there’s no second chance, and before we know it, we have said “The time is perfect to go”. That’s what he sings, and we believe him all the more for it.

An element of this song that will be immediately recognisable to long-time Neil Diamond fans is his sense of drama. As the song moves on from that graceful beginning, his voice builds in urgency and regret at the same time, as if the ever-increasing band are egging him on, forcing him to get it all out before they all implode, unable quite to release themselves from the restrained, powerful shackles Rubin has placed on them. So the singer dispenses with the gaps between the lines that the first verse features (retaining them only at the end of subsequent verses), piling on line after line of words which with a combination of literal truth and simple metaphor keep the listener firmly rooted in the land of the real.

If I don’t see you again
We ran a whole other race
Two strangers meet on the road
And find their time and their place
We never once had to lie
We’d passed the age of consent
If I don’t see you again

But still you get the sense that his own songwriting won’t let him dawdle, and so without moving beyond the simple three chords that form the basis of his (and so many others’) art, he introduces a new melody, which switches between the chords every bar, rather than every two bars. At the same time the melody goes higher and higher, before realising that “hardly anyone cared”, and settling back to that repeated line, the title of the song. Indeed, what follows now is the introduction of the third and final musical motif, a gentler and questioning melody – providing space for an ambling organ to enter the fray, but also for Diamond’s voice to take us up, faster, louder, as his feeling of expected loss becomes ever more urgent.

Neil Diamond’s voice has always been sonorous and deep, a baritone of real beauty, but now, with years on the clock, he doesn’t over-use it as he did in the eighties, as the pop songwriting deserted him and he crafted songs based only on the emotion (which itself was often hammed up). No, this song is no Heartlight, which was inspired by another piece of mawkish emotion (the film ET). Now, there’s a real fire in his voice, which takes you right back to his earlier days, back even before the fire in his music came from his experimentation with interesting existential songs, like I Am…I Said, and African rhythms, right back to when he wrote songs about his childhood. The song Shilo was a masterpiece of late sixties pop, using a contained, thoughtful musical accompaniment alongside ambitious and striking lyrics, so that the music gave the thoughts time to breathe. This was the young man Diamond, singing about the boy Neil and his imaginary friend, and as the self-imposed limits on rock and roll aggression reflect the material limits on life of a poor boy growing up in post-war Brooklyn, the singer virtually cries his every word:

I wanted to fly
She made me feel like I could
Held my hand now I let her take me
Blind as a child
All I saw was the way that she made me smile
She made me smile

Forty years later, the technique is the same – just as the song’s lyrics recall Diamond’s earliest work, skipping straight back over his often embarrassing attempts at rootless nostalgia (September Morn) and spiritual self-examination, so Rubin’s major musical achievement has been to listen to Diamond’s sixties work, and strip back the sound of his later excesses so as to arrive back in those younger days. The result is equally powerful.

It’s time for saying goodbye
Cos if I stay for too long
You’d get to know me too well
And find that something was wrong
The time is perfect to go
Before the curtain descends
Right now when both of us know
That everything’s got to end
If I don’t see you again

Only once in this key set of lyrics does the drama of the piece show itself in the written word, as he sings of the curtain descending, giving the strong impression of the two of them playing out some of movie or play, rather than a normal life or love story, as would have been suggested by there being two curtains which simply close. But this is a fleeting image, because after all, they’re not there yet – he’s saying, I’ll go now, before all of this happens. Let’s keep it simple, as just like before, it all has to end. But just let me see you again. And that, importantly, is where the tensely-coiled fervour of his voice has been leading: the realisation, both strong and uncomplicated, that just to see his love is to change everything in some profound way. He doesn’t say it quite like that, but only because he doesn’t need to. The words create the gaps between them, and his voice gives them their weight.

In his early days as a live performer, Diamond was given the advice that he should always leave his audience wanting more. It was advice he took only sometimes when making records. Moving on from writing and recording short, sharp, intelligent poppy numbers, Diamond began to make longer songs, with more mature sentiments than the likes of Shilo. But even some of his best songs from that period in the early seventies leave nothing unsaid, no verse left unsung, no metaphor left unexplored – for example the charming Canta Libre, from his excellent album Moods:

I got music running my head
Makes me feel like a young bird flying
Cross my mind and laying on my bed
Keeps me away from the thought of dying

Several decades later, Diamond seems more able to take that advice and leave things unplayed for as long as possible, so that when the moments of inspiration are finally put on display, they seem less manufactured and more revelatory for that. Four minutes into If I Don’t See You Again, he is still building the song, and it’s now that you realise he’s building something of real substance. The words don’t change that much, the story is as you would expect, but somehow you don’t get bored, and you just want to hear more of that ringing acoustic guitar riff, the increasingly majestic piano, and the frills provided by the organ and bass. And the singer feels your need, in fact he embraces it, and in the closest he gets to anger and conceit in the whole song, he finally lets go about his lost audience, his lost love.

And will you be the one to save me
Doesn’t look like the future is clearing
Need you to hear me playing a tune
When nobody hears me
I end up playing to the moon

So as singer and song demand your full attention while he plays out the end of the affair, Diamond repeats the verse about perfect times to depart and descending curtains, over the most urgent, rapidly-changing melody that the song employs, before settling back, for what seems to be for ever, into a happier, contented place, there to sing the song’s beginning again, complete with those longer gaps between lines, as if we had never been on the emotional ride he’s just taken us through. But instead, he gives us one last passionate flourish, he makes a subtle and sudden change to the by-now familiar melody, and begins to cry at us, just like he did all those years ago when he nearly broke down at the thought of his best friend, his imaginary friend:

You went and turned me around
Could be was something you said
I couldn’t make out the sound

And finally, having accepted that it was his love, not his own self, that made things better, made the difference, he uses that restrained but forceful shout one last time, to tell us how little it would all have meant, in the absence of that last sighting of the object of his song:

I didn’t care what it meant
If I don’t see you again
If I don’t see you again
If I don’t see you again

With no lingering instrumental coda, no chance for the band to round it all up in what would probably be a watering down of Diamond’s flames, the last word and the last chord are allowed to ring out and off in unison, leaving us with a last couple of lines which contain, musically and emotionally, all of the essence of the previous seven minutes. Concise and yet prolonged, restrained and yet passionate, this song is one of a kind – written and performed by a musical giant.



Anonymous Odelia said...

This is great info to know.

11:10 am  

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