Aiken Finds His 'Way'; Diamond Is Right at 'Home'

Clay Aiken's
Clay Aiken's "On My Way Here" is a work of autobiography that's livelier than an earlier compilation of covers. (By Scott Suchman)
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By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Of all the "American Idol" contestants, Clay Aiken has always been the most suspiciously pliable. His post-"Idol" debut was a respectable prefab adult contemporary collection, but he stumbled hard with its official follow-up, "A Thousand Different Ways," a collection of the-record-company-made-me-do-it covers of Bryan Adams and Mr. Mister songs (among others) so flawlessly bad, so devoid of personality, it's hard to imagine that Kelly Clarkson would have consented to record such a thing on her first day off the bus.

Like Neil Diamond (whose latest album, "Home Before Dark," also arrives today), Aiken intends his new disc, "On My Way Here," to be a career-defining work of autobiography. Aiken's whiz-bang team of producers and songwriters has crafted a declaration of independence that sounds a lot like the one created by the producers and songwriters of his first disc. But it's better, and livelier, than anything else he's done, a baseline adult contemporary album that occasionally expands to include synthy R&B ("Weight of the World"), lite rock ("Ashes") and hooky pop (the title track, written by OneRepublic singer Ryan Tedder).

Aiken has always seemed more interesting than his material and his public would allow for: beatific in voice, prickly in personality. At its best, "On My Way Here" is a recessive blend of sweetness, piety, confusion and barely concealed resentment that occasionally, if unintentionally, bares its teeth. The subtext of every song seems to be, How did I wind up here? Or, alternately, What do you want from me?

Aiken may sing through gritted teeth, but Diamond, who found himself similarly adrift in schlock during his post-"Jazz Singer" years, always seemed to enjoy himself immensely. At least until he met producer Rick Rubin, who rescued Diamond from his rhinestone leisure-suited purgatory more than a decade after working similar magic on Johnny Cash.

Their latest collaboration, "Home Before Dark," is a follow-up to 2005's stark and nifty career resuscitator, "12 Songs." Like its predecessor, it's steeped in the sort of somberness Rubin confuses with authenticity, though Diamond now occasionally seems more exuberant and less straitjacketed. He sounds more like Neil Diamond -- and less like Neil Diamond trying to sound like Johnny Cash trying to sound like Neil Diamond. Though Rubin is accompanied by a band that includes two Heartbreakers, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines -- on the perfunctory but pretty duet "Another Day (That Time Forgot)" -- and a string section, "Dark" still feels as stripped-down and immediate as "12 Songs," even when a bigger sound might serve it better.

"Dark" features a similar mix of love songs, homespun homilies and tales of woe, in roughly similar proportions: "Don't Go There" is one of a host of advice-dispensing ballads; "Pretty Amazing Grace" is one of several "I found love again! And I'm pretty old"-type ballads; the record opening "If I Don't See You Again" couldn't offer more tomblike gravitas if it had been sung by Tommy Lee Jones.

On its best track, "Act Like a Man," Diamond addresses the difficulties facing male musicians who follow the charts instead of their hearts ("Song maker/You heartbreaker/You faker/You better stop it while you can"). Clay Aiken could probably sing the heck out of it, if given half the chance.

Neil Diamond is scheduled to perform at Verizon Center on Aug. 5.

DOWNLOAD THESE: Aiken: "On My Way Here," "Ashes"; Diamond: "If I Don't See You Again," "Act Like a Man"

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