Wandering the Aisles: Neil Diamond Turns on His Heartlight

Written by Music, Wandering the Aisles

Yesterday, Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011. It was the ultimate recognition for the iconic singer-songwriter, responsible for some of the brightest folk-pop moments of the ‘60s and ‘70s – not to mention the most mind-blowing soundtrack to my town’s annual Labor Day fireworks display. While the man may be ironically appreciated for his bombastic vocal delivery or David Wild-approved Jewishness, Diamond is clearly more than that, as good pop geeks should know. Come on, the guy wrote two of the best pop singles of the ‘60s in “I’m a Believer” and “Cherry Cherry”!

However, none of Diamond’s musical brilliance can explain or justify why the only of his albums I own is 1982’s Heartlight. And it’s not just an album taking up space on my shelf; it’s an album taking up three spaces on my shelf, as an LP, a cassette and – thanks to the good people of my local Super A&P Food Market – a moderately-priced CD. Even as a man who frequently replaces albums with remastered or deluxe editions of the same content, that’s overkill – but stranger things have happened while Wandering the Aisles…

I own Heartlight to for two reasons – my parents – and I kept it thanks to two letters: E.T. Imagine my delight when I was told by my parents that my favorite film prompted Diamond to record a song in tribute to the wrinkly, brown space creature. Of course, as a child I never cared for much of the album; even with song titles like “Coming Home,” “Star Flight” and “Lost Among the Stars” – and a front cover featuring a pensive Diamond in a forest – Heartlight failed to live up to the promise of an E.T.-oriented concept album I had anticipated.

Now that adulthood has set in and Diamond has been declared by Jann Wenner and company to be more of an iconic rock presence than KISS, how does Heartlight sound?

One has to remember, while revisiting the album, that Diamond was well in the throes of  a prolonged affair with the adult contemporary crowd. (I would defer to Jason Hare, expert of all things Mellow Gold, as to whether or not Diamond’s output belongs in said category.) The apex of these soft-focus, Vaseline-on-the-lens tunes, of course, was 1977’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” a lovelorn song covered so faithfully by Barbra Streisand that radio stations began cutting both versions together as a duet, which prompted the two to re-record the song together.

A film based on the song was allegedly scrapped in favor of Diamond’s pet project, The Jazz Singer, a film so delightfully ridiculous and unrelated to the introduction of synchronized sound in motion pictures that it would make your head spin. Neil wasn’t hurting for fans and sales after the film flopped – thank the American housewife population in the ‘70s – but a hit tied to a successful movie couldn’t hurt.

The story goes that Diamond saw E.T. with Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, and were duly inspired to write and record a song in tribute. I don’t imagine composer John Williams conceding that a theme for E.T. would need a piano-driven melody played by lite-FM overlord David Foster – but that’s exactly what happened. Even with a comically passionate vocal delivery by the singer (“Turn awn ya hawwwwwt-LIGHT!”) and lyrics that danced around the film’s plot without explicitly mentioning the title (“Don’t wake me up too soon/gonna take a ride across the moon/you and me”), the song soared to No. 5 on the charts. (And dig that hysterical video above, as Neil unconvincingly plays the keyboard and gets the rhythm of the song wrong, all while possessing the worst haircut-and-sweater-tied-around-shoulders combo in history.)

But what of the album’s other ten tracks? They’re certainly just as mellow as the others – Foster co-wrote second single “I’m Alive,” while most of the tracks were penned by Diamond with the Bacharach/Bayer Sager team – and they’re loaded with notable session men of the era, including Paulinho da Costa, Michael Omartian, Michael Boddicker, Lee Ritenour and Richard Page of Mr. Mister. But there are a few delightfully singable melodies, from the driving lite-rock of “I’m Alive” and “Star Flight” to the simple sweetness of “I’m Guilty.”

There’s much to like about Heartlight, but one of the major issues with the disc is – surprise! – it’s way too mellow. While there’s a certain nobility in Diamond, then 41, avoiding looking like a dumbass by embracing, say, the popular post-punk and New Wave sounds of the era, there are parts of this album that you shouldn’t listen to while operating heavy machinery. “In Ensenada,” an ode to the Mexican seaport with almost no Latin influence whatsoever, is a particular offender, as is “Front Page Story,” a terribly boring choice for a third single that stalled around No. 65.

The golden-throated, Sleepytime Tea-formula that Neil Diamond was known for years before he built it to perfection on Heartlight stalled his career before the semi-ironic appreciation afforded to him in the mid-‘90s by playing “Sweet Caroline” at baseball games or having Rick Rubin produce his albums. But, as even the most casual fan of his work can attest, he knows what he does well. Just don’t expect to build a space communicator from a Speak and Spell, a record player and an umbrella to sing the praises of Heartlight to other worlds.