If groups are a thing of the past, and the solo artist has again come into prominence, then maybe Neil Diamond's time has come.
It's not that he hasn't achieved success in his field. Once a young kid from Coney Island, turned down by every music publisher in New York, he turned out a string of top-selling singles that fairly rivals John Fogerty, and probably made a lot of music business people wish they had listened earlier. He set out to conquer the industry, and he did it. First as a writer, then as a singer of his own material.
Diamond has always aimed at a fairly teenybop audience. And, now he isn't satisfied. He wants to be an artist. Since, presumably, no one is an artist on 45s, and since his albums have never been more than assemblages of singles that made it and singles that didn't, he's tried something different with his last two albums. One was successful, and one wasn't. I doubt that either will afford him recognition beyond which he holds. But, maybe.
His latest album, Tap Root Manuscript, is a half step at being Artistic.
Side One is the usual a couple of dynamite singles and a couple of not-so-hot singles. "Cracklin' Rosie," which made it to number one nationally, is excellent Neil Diamond. Named after the wine of the same name ("Cracklin' Rose, you're a store-bought woman") Rosie's a good chick. Diamond isn't afraid to throw in a little early-Sixties schmaltz. He has thoroughly bypassed, or ignored "rock" progressive or otherwise. He's chosen to go ahead with straight pop. But, two things set him apart from, say, Bobby Vee. One is that he has a really knockout voice once it might have been called a "strong baritone." And two, he's deeply involved with the music he writes.
"He Ain't Heavy...He's My Brother," one of the only songs Diamond has recorded that he didn't write, is a good example of the straight-on soul that Neil Diamond can sing. "Free Life" is another good cut, although it hasn't made it on Top-40. "Done Too Soon" is one of the duds. Reminiscent of Paul Simon's "A Simple Desultory Phillipic," it's just a rhyming list of famous, groovy people who were ahead of their time done too soon.
Side Two is the Artistry, open to question. This is The African Trilogy (a folk ballet). It's a varied and ambitious work. Here is the written introduction:
"When rhythm and blues lost its sensuality for me I fell in love with a woman named gospel. We met secretly in the churches of Harlem and made love at revival meetings in Mississippi.
"And loving her as I did. I found a great yearning to know her roots. And I found them. And they were in Africa. And they left me breathless.
"The African triology is an attempt to convey my passion for the folk music of that black continent."
I know you're laughing. The strange thing is, it's not that bad a piece of music. It's certainly far less pretentious than its introduction. The worst of it has been identified as: