The title “The Very Best of Neil Diamond” can mean two things. On the one hand, it’s a self-explanatory title for one of music’s most enduring, hit-encrusted and best-loved figureheads.
On the other, it also happens to be the title of one Welsh pop experimenters Super Furry Animals’ best songs of recent years. Either way, it’s pretty much a winner.
The album itself is certainly more than a whistle-stop tour of the hits. We get early gems, self-penned smashes for others (it’s easy to forget that Diamond wrote both The Monkees’ I’m a Believer and Red Red Wine) and travel right through the treacle that defined his middle period until his rootsy Rick Rubin-produced efforts from 2005 and beyond.
That being the case, you can see Diamond at his very best and his very worst.
Love on the Rocks, taken from the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer (in which Diamond starred, to miserable reviews) emits a very affected melancholy and the Barbra Streisand duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers is wince-inducingly slow and indulgent, but none of that matters.
In fact, a whole career packed with cheese, Vegas-style backing bands and incredible suits cannot dim the effect of I Am… I Said from 1971 – it is his pinnacle of integrity and honesty.
Similarly, the bounce of Cherry Cherry and the menace and regret of Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon show just how devastating Diamond can be. It’s those examples that begin to erase the memory of the schmaltzy missteps. When his songs are plagued by self-doubt, naivety and the sense that everything is not okay, they suddenly become urgently listenable, dramatic little works of art.
And despite its awful title, Hell Yeah (from the Rubin-produced album 12 Songs) is one of the very best here – closing the whole collection with a song that doesn’t just ape the Johnny Cash American Recordings, but cements Diamond firmly in the sound of today. His tight-throated grizzle chimes over gentle accordion: “Still I think about myself as a lucky old dreamer.”
Just be prepared: The Very Best of Neil Diamond is exactly that, but not all the way through.