Stylus Magazine’s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you’ve never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Neil Diamond has always been the fleshiest skeleton in your AM Gold closet, Saving Silverman notwithstanding. Look at the cover of Hot August Night. I mean, if I add that to my CD collection, I’m pulling up Photoshop and setting myself to work on a new 4.75×4.75 tableau.
Coming out of the late Tin Pan Alley songwriting firms, Diamond eventually decided to meld his carbon-honey voice to his own creations. But during his tenure with Bang Records, his singles (“Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and “I’m a Believer” for example) always trumped the albums they were built to highlight: a slop of label-proud hits coupled with enough water to get the wheel through the mill. It wasn’t until his move to the Uni Records subsidiary of MCA that Diamond began to understand how to make a full-length. Even then, the going was slow: Velvet Gloves and Spit had plenty of ham even for Diamond—the slow-boat dullardry of “Honey-Drippin’ Times” and the intolerably glib “Pot Smoker’s Song” deserve mention—while Touching You, Touching Me included only five Diamond originals rounded out with material by Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. With 1970’s Tap Root Manuscript, however, Diamond finally showed promise for an entire project, albeit one of two distinct parts. Packaging the singles (“Cracklin’ Rosie” and a cover of “He Ain’t Heavy. . .He’s My Brother”) with a full-side “African Trilogy” suite, Neil had the ideal LP flip with Tap Root, each side unified by Diamond’s increased comfort within the album-format while still separated by the novelty of his most experimental composition yet.
And what a bewildering side it was. The “African Trilogy” plays out like the Rainforest Café filled to capacity with the cast of Sesame Street. Complete with children’s choir, zipping flute introductions, sprinkles of rain and splits of thunder, African tribal hymns, birdsong and animal-heat, and Diamond himself as host of this grass-roofed gospel assembly, it’s tempting to write “The African Trilogy” off as whimsical psychedelic blubbery. I mean, yes, Neil, there were floods and I’m sorry you lost your cow—yes, yes, you might just be the lion, I guess—but can you dim the maracas, put some paper underneath that goat, and send the kids to the yard for a moment?
But, for at least several minutes out of all this charm and confusion, Diamond finds the “Seconds” stride that brings us to this column. Oddly, “Soolaimon (African Trilogy II)” reached #30 on the singles charts, a puzzling artistic feat in comparison to the come-hither charms of Diamond’s more timeless singles (though, it’s also an interesting companion time-piece to the liberal doses of reggae and African rhythms artists like Paul Simon were experimenting with at the same time). Over a tribal drum thomp, sitar, and acoustic guitar, Neil seems uncertain just which language to form, and goes about finding his own with prolonged syllables and jumbled utterance: “Come here, come say, ride on the night; sun become day, day shall provide.”
As the drum pattering gains speed, a choir swoons in behind Diamond to chant the title’s refrain: “Soo-sooolaimon, soo-lai, soo-lai, sooo-laimon.” And then, together in voice if not in tongue, they burst into jungled orgasm; gospel piano begins to simmer and then drops out entirely, failing to match the choir’s heat. Diamond’s at the front, but not the top; lay your ear with the background voices as they wail and flirt with the edges of Diamond’s tub-deep bellow: “God of my want (want! want!), lord of my need (need! need!), on to my woman, she dance for the sun.” You can almost see the white robes—rusted the brown of a sun-dry road—of this gathering wearied and dim from sun and days of foot-travel, until the track shifts into ascent and all their energy returns; a solo soprano lifts over the chorus and hangs above several beats, aloft, enlivened, and fierce. But “Soolaimon” pulls back before its fervor’s spent. Neil smoothes out a soft organ over rumbling hand drums, and they begin anew, their slow crescendo to the same climax, a furious bend of bliss. It’s not the only stunning moment to be found in the “African Trilogy” suite, but it’s the one that will have you wondering just how much Graceland will bring on eBay.