Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Diamond days

To the CD player (I'm waaay too cool for an iPod) for a fading star's late-career stripped-down album. No, not Johnny Cash (I'm getting American III for Christmas so I'll do that then) but Neil Diamond's 12 Songs.

It's not wrong to start with Cash, tho'. Rick Rubin, the producer who reduced Cash to a guitar and a mike ploughing through the best of the twentieth century in his American albums, has done the same for Diamond. The effect is just as electrifying now as then.

If all you know of Diamond is the cheerful strumming of Sweet Caroline or I'm a Believer, you'll be blown away. The entire album is a bittersweet autobiography of a lover, from puppy adoration (Save Me A Saturday Night) to full-throttle passion (Delirious Love) to Every Breath You Take-style vengeance (I'm On To You).

The album (of all-new material) is so personal, and the simplicity of the orchestration (one man and his guitar) only reinforces this. The sequence of the songs can be seen as a psychological journey, starting with the simple fidelity of Oh Mary and moving through memories of love accepted and love spurned to a final reconciliation with love in We. The good humour of We is underpinned by the tuba thumping away.

What adds to the success is Diamond's voice. It's losing its sweetness and it's a strech for some of the higher notes, all of which add to the pathos. When he shouts his affirmation of his life at the climax of Hell Yeah, it's a raw and triumphant moment combined with a Prospero-like acceptance of the end. It's the summation of a career and of a life.

There are two added tracks on my copy, one of which is a version of Delirious Love with Brian Wilson in full Beach Boys-mode. Once you hear it, with the jingling bells and Good Vibrations rising in the background, the first version, though fairly rocking, must be put beneath this full-bodied take.

If Save Me A Saturday Night is a little twee and Man of God a rather conventional gospel song, these are tiny chips in an otherwise towering monument.

Yes, it's very similar to late Cash, but that's no bad thing - to have two first class singers recording in a mature, pared-down style is both philosophically and musically to be welcomed. That Diamond wrote all his songs only makes it better.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

British Museum bites

To the British Museum today for a quick browse while in town: orrery still there? Check. Great Court's roof still like an optical illusion? Check.

Unusually I found myself on the fourth floor, near some of the Asian collections (most of the time I stick myself in the Enlightenment Gallery or near the Classical pieces). Turns out I was near the temp exhibition rooms and I'm glad I was.

One of the exhibs is Avigdor Arikha From Life: Drawings and Prints 1965-2005 (Room 90; 29 June 2006-7 January 2007; free). Arikha, a Jew who was born in Romania, was only rescued from concentration camps in the Ukraine because of his skill at drawing.

The pictures mostly date from after 1965, when he turned his back on the abstraction which had made him famous. He wanted to explore 'the biggest mystery, the world around us' and so decided to work figuratively. However, these pictures are not naturalistic line drawings but brush and ink drawings, which feel free yet very controlled.

Samuel Beckett with a glass of wine (Paris, 7.10.69) is one of the best - Beckett has his head in his heads, a dark whirl of ink reflecting his depression. What is even better is the huge white space to Beckett's right, an unending loneliness and evocative of SB's dramatic concerns. Hollywood Hills (LA 26.4.72) is virtually an Impressionist piece, playing with the light as it hits the hills.

In the next room is Myths of Bengal (14 September 2006–7 January 2007; free). My knowledge of Bengali culture and history is limited (and that's being kind), so I came to this with an open mind.

The Gazi Scroll, one of the BM's masterpieces, is hanging here and includes some of Bengali art's most distinctive characteristics: vivid colours, heavy patterning, stylised figures, no third dimension. The scroll is an adventure narrative, so there is much opportunity for scenes of activity, which transcend their static presentation.

Bengali culture is well-known for its vibrancy and these artefacts are excellent examples of why this is. A scroll of Child Krishna which was probably dashed off for pilgrims in Calcutta shows what a very limited palette can do - against a midnight blue/grey background the red and yellow dart off the page.

On a cross-cultural note, it was interesting to notice the links between Bengali and Classical myths: Krishna as naughty child-thief parallels Hermes (cf. Homeric Hymn to Hermes); as a flute-player he parallels Pan; and in the one who draws bands of women from their cities to dance in ecstatic trances in the woods, you can definitely see Dionysos in Euripides' Bakchai. Indo-European culture may have divided into countless daughter cultures but their common ancestry can't be forgotten.