Although a 2018 Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis effectively ended Neil Diamond’s touring career, the songwriting legend has no plans to stop making music. Recorded between London’s historic Abbey Road Studios and the singer’s own Los Angeles studio, Classic Diamonds is equal parts retrospective and reinterpretation as he revisits 14 of his best known songs with assistance from the London Symphony Orchestra.
Playing with an orchestra is nothing new for Diamond; brass and strings have been a defining characteristic of his music since the late 1960s, both on-stage and in the studio. To that end, it’s almost surprising that a symphonic reimagining of his hits doesn’t already exist. Still, with a catalog as deep as Diamond’s, it’s hard to fault him for playing to his strengths and at 79, he still brings a remarkable amount of emotion and an easy warmth to the experience.
Forgoing his usual band, Classic Diamonds aims for a classy vibe, relying mostly on piano and orchestra to reframe songs like “Beautiful Noise” and “Song Sung Blue,” neither of which resemble their original arrangements. A sweeping overture and deconstructed chord changes breathe new life into the former, while the latter is extended with a newly written intro containing extra lyrics. Produced by Walter Afanasieff who also co-arranged with conductor William Ross, it’s nice to hear Diamond and his collaborators taking liberties with the material, even if not all of them land.
Altering the perky pop classic “I’m a Believer” into a wistful ballad serves up a little too much corn, as does his impassioned reading of Emma Lazarus’ famous sonnet (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”) to kick off the rousing immigration anthem “America,” though the latter is certainly on-brand for Diamond’s style of earnest showmanship. On the other hand, the sudden appearance of a sitar and exultant choir adds an interesting twist and makes for a bombastic and surprisingly moving version of “Holly Holy.” On the whole, Classic Diamonds feels like somewhat of an unnecessary exercise given the already-lush nature of Diamond’s work, but his performances are uniformly strong and the set contains just enough surprises to prop up the misfires.
1 Beautiful Noise 03:25
2 Hello Again 04:02
3 I Am… I Said 05:04
4 I’m a Believer 03:48
5 Song Sung Blue 04:08
6 September Morn 03:57
7 America 04:04
8 Holly Holy 05:55
9 You Don’t Bring Me Flowers 03:32
10 Play Me 04:42
11 Love on the Rocks 04:06
12 Heartlight 04:46
13 I’ve Been This Way Before 03:44
14 Sweet Caroline 04:22