Neil Diamond Album Overview
Part 5: Heading for the "Future"- the 1980's
David Bisese

ZMOQ sez: Personally, I consider ALL of Neil's post-Jazz Singer studio albums to be a vast wasteland, with only an occasional oasis of listening pleasure, and I just never had the passion for the material to actually sit through all of them and attempt to write an objective review. Somehow, I would keep getting distracted from Neil's 80's stuff in favor of "LOST" reruns, Harry Potter books, Kiss solo albums, backgammon, raising crayfish, random humor websites, blogs... anything but Neil's music from that period.

Thanks to David Bisese's generous offer to write reviews of Neil Diamond's 1980's studio albums, I am now pleased to host Part 5 of the "Neil Diamond Album Overview". All of Davids reviews are unedited and presented here as originally written, and I hope everybody enjoys them as much as I did.  -Z (ed.)

Love Songs
On the Way to the Sky (1981): While certainly not Neil's worst album up to this point, coming fresh on the heels of the brilliant Jazz Singer soundtrack - this one was probably Neil's biggest disappointment. (That dubious "worst-album-up-to-'81" honor would have to go to either of the cover-heavy Rainbow or September Morn collections.) The problem here is indicative of what was to happen on all of Neil's albums through the mid-90's: too much mediocre filler. This album certainly has it's share of songs that rank up there with Neil's classics ("Be Mine Tonight", "Rainy Day Song" and possibly even "Guitar Heaven"). Unfortunately, most of the remainder of the album is just one overly-produced & overly-dramatic ballad after another. One special note on this one though... The superb "Be Mine Tonight" was a surprisingly refreshing throwback to the old Bang days. I remember even at the time that hoping it (along with the subsequent release of the Classics - The Eary Years Bang collection) would lead to something more...

12GH v.2
Heartlight (1982): More of the same here as Neil continues his "On the Way to the MOR" decline. Overall, this was probably Neil's most mellow album until 1991's Lovescape offering. Once again, there are some truly great songs on here ("Coming Home", "First You Have to Say You Love Me", "Star Flight" and possibly even "Front Page Story"). It also includes Neil's last real hit (the title song - though not one of my personal favorites). Unfortunately, they're lost and buried between a number of mellow, mood pieces that are almost impossible to distinguish from each other. So many of the ballads flow together with similar melodies that it's often possible to forget you've just listened to two or three separate songs in a row. It should also be noted here however that Neil did get a LOT of concert milage out of this album's upbeat "I'm Alive" tune. Though it wasn't a personal favorite of mine, I can't argue with its obvious fan appeal in the 80's.

Primitive (1984): Reports at the time revealed that Columbia's higher-ups were not satisfied with the original collection of songs Neil submitted for this album. Word has it that they rejected a handful of songs outright (saying that they didn't have enough "commercial appeal") and told him to write some more... which he did. While it was a noble effort to try and salvage "commercial appeal", realistically I don't think it would have happened with any collection of songs. By 1984, Neil had discovered what all of his fellow forty-something balladeers had discovered: the new MTV generation had annointed their own crop of balladeers (i.e. Lionel Richie, George Michael, Billy Ocean, etc.). Consequently, names like Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers & Barry Manilow were pretty much stricken from all Top 40 playlists. The album itself is much in the same mold of it's two 80's predecessors ("...Sky" & "Heartlight"). There are some very good songs here ("Brooklyn on a Saturday Night", "Fire on the Tracks", "Primitive" and "Turn Around") gasping for breath from underneath all the filler. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this album (after "Heartlight") was the resurgence in Neil's uptempo writing. Say what you want about the album as a whole... but "Brooklyn on a Saturday Night" rocked!

Headed For the Future (1986): Rumor has it that (once again) Neil's first collection of songs for this album was rejected by Columbia. (This time the reason was that the collection was too dark & introspective... a condition that was no doubt brought on by the then-recent death of Neil's father.) In some ways that's a shame because a little dark introspection would probably been a welcome change from the glossy pop sheen covering most of Neil's 80's work thusfar. Instead, to counteract his can't-get-no-airplay dilema, Neil tried collaborating with some of the more successfull songwriters of the day (most notably Brian Adams & Stevie Wonder). The results were pretty mixed. The title cut gave Neil his last (barely) Top 40 hit - though it's really little more than a rewrite of "America" with a high-tech sounding intro. On the other hand, some of the ballads were quite powerfull ("It Should've Been Me" & "The Man You Need"). Much of the rest was discouraging. It was sad to hear an artist of Neil's caliber pandering so much to current trends.

Hot August Night II (1987): By 1987 Neil's live show bore little resemblence to the stripped down, almost acoustic sound of '72's Hot August Night triumph. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to call this one Love at the Greek II. Neil's earlier live albums highlighted just how much his live performance enhanced his original studio recordings. Listening to this collection - which understandably relies heavily on Neil's post-Love at the Greek hits - it struck me how much Neil had shifted his live focus to simply recreating his studio recordings note-for-note. Vocally, time had taken its toll on Neil's gruff baritone. That's not necessarily a bad thing on the rockers. Unfortunately he's reduced to talking his way through many of the ballads ("September Morn" in particular). The album is not without its own set of highlights though. New songs "Back in L.A." and broadway showtune "I Dreamed a Dream" were both strong. The inclusion of "Thank the Lord for the Night Time" was a nice surprise. Without a doubt though, the album's high water mark was "Cherry, Cherry". Somewhere in the mid-80's Neil came up with a new live arrangement for his first Top Ten hit. The new version modified the tempo ever so slightly and served as a glaring example of just how much recent hits like The Romantics "What I Like About You" and John Mellencamp's "R*O*C*K in the U.S.A." had borrowed (translation: stolen) from his original E-A-D-A guitar riff. That one song alone is more than worth the price of the disc.

Glory Rd
The Best Years of Our Lives (1988): Without a doubt, Neil's best post-Jazz Singer 80's album. There are three rock & roll high points on this album that rank up there with Neil's best work (the title song, "Everything's Gonna Be Fine" & "Take Care of Me"). In addition, many of Neil's original ballads are very good on this one ("This Time" & "Carmelita's Eyes"). Also, Neil makes a risky cover choice by performing then-hot Tracy Chapman's "Baby Can I Hold You". I say "risky" because his version was released almost simultaneously with hers (a practice which reportedly had infuriated Neil when Streisand did pretty much the same thing to him with her solo version of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" back in '77). The risk paid off however. Neil's version was better. Overall, this one was a well-done & very encouraging effort.

The Neil Diamond 80's Challenge. Perhaps the reason that most of these post-Jazz Singer 80's albums didn't hold up was that they each contained too much filler. In this age of easily compiled (and burned) song collections, I'd advise the following: You can usually fit about 20 songs onto an 80-minute CD. Pick any 13 or 14 of the songs singled out in these reviews as being superior, non-filler. In addition grab 6 or 7 additional tunes from any of these albums and space them out between the 13 or 14 good ones. (Your mix should have roughly a 1.Superior 2.Superior 3.Filler 4.Superior 5.Superior 6.Filler... flow to it.) Burn the disc and give it a listen. I've found that many of the songs I've often dismissed as filler are better when they're sandwiched between good songs. Perhaps because the quality level never dips below a certain point for too long.

Related Pages:

Part 1: 1966-1967 The Rock n' Rollin' Bang Years
Part 2: 1968-1972 Ambitious Singer/Songwriter/Hitmaker
Part 3: 1973-1980 The Early Columbia Years, from Mystic to Romantic
Part 4: 1981-2003 The Compilation-Mania years

This article is Copyright 2006, David Bisese. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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