“Wouldn’t it be great if Neil Diamond became super cool again?” posited my wife as we listened to 12 Songs on the way to the family house for Thanksgiving. The question was somewhat rhetorical, however, as the combination of Rick Rubin and a stripped down Diamond is a near-sure formula for success. Every few years a career revival takes place, introducing an aging artist to a younger generation. From Sinatra to Tony Bennett, and more recently the Rubin-mentored Johnny Cash, these once considered `uncool’ artists found new life by embracing not only what was great about themselves to begin with, but combining that with looking back on a life well lived and taking time for reflection. Sinatra did it numerous times by staying his old stubborn self and in September of My Years, revealing a fragile side of himself not seen before; Bennett did it by going on MTV Unplugged, and Cash by covering songs from today’s artists such as Soundgarden , Beck, and more famously, Nine Inch Nails. Diamond does it in 12 Songs by balancing his leanings towards melodramatic showmanship with Rubin’s better angles of paring down, simplifying and getting to the soul’s core.
I didn’t start out a Neil Diamond fan; that should be clear. My wife’s first concert, however, was a Neil Diamond show, and her parents are huge fans. Over the past few years, just as I have grown to like many other artists that I had somehow ‘avoided,’ (i.e. Dusty Springfield, Donovan, Modest Mouse) I grew to like Neil Diamond. His own versions of songs he penned such as “Red Red Wine” and “I’m a Believer” are gems, not to mention the crowd stoppers “Sweet Caroline” and “America,” (which I would take over the Lee Greenwoods, Montgomery Gentrys and Toby Keiths any day of the week) which either get the party going with audience participation or send chills up the spine alternately. Sure, Diamond’s had some missteps, even his most ardent fans recognize that songs like “Heartlight” and some of his overproduced and bombastic material was wide of the mark. It was way past time to rein it in and Rubin was up to the task, and frankly, was practically begging for it.
Coaxing Diamond into playing his own guitar parts, and only layering in strings and piano when necessary (save except for the slightly too whimsical “We”), Rubin exposed the essence of Neil as he has for numerous artists before him. Rubin previously made known his love of the early work of Mr. Diamond as he had Johnny Cash sing “Solitary Man.” Now, working with the man himself, he has Neil recording his own songs, even helping to shape and guide each song that ended up on the finished product that shares a title with a Randy Newman album. (Truth be told, the special edition that most consumers will end up buying contains 14 songs). “Mary Mary” finds the man indeed solitary, playing the guitar while he sings rather than layering separate tracks. That simple fact creates an intimacy not felt from the singer / songwriter in years. “Hell Yeah” is Diamond’s “Hurt,” full of self-reflection and a celebration of life from the near 65-year-old. You’ll read reviews that will say this is his best album in 30 years, some that will discuss overly simplistic lyrics, and even one I found that urged him to record “Terrible Lie,” hopefully in jest. The former is definitely true, the following possibly accurate, and the latter ridiculous, but one listen to “Hell Yeah,” its passion, honesty and vigor, and one need not be convinced of Diamond’s talent and star power.
“Delirious Love” is a worthy enough song on its own, but make sure to buy the limited edition with the other version of the same song featuring Brian Wilson adding his own vocals and production magic to the table. The result is a match made in harmonic heaven. “I’m On To You” is another one of the highlights, with a Burt Bacharach feel to coincide with spiteful and introspective lyrics such as “tell me now how I was wrong and I’ll tell you how right you are,” and “I wish you well, but loving you hurt like hell.” Really, there’s not a single bad song on the album, with one exception that simply gets tiring with repeated plays, but overall, 12 Songs can even, as in this case, win over non-Diamond fans.
Even though I had never been a huge Neil Diamond fan, I find myself warming to his affected, gravelly voice and even his tacky Elvis-like jumpsuits. That takes some cojones to wear that kind of thing onstage, and he went for it 100 percent and then some. I find it strange, however, that most music stores categorize him as “Easy Listening.” After 12 Songs, those stores will be hard pressed to try and keep him in that pigeonhole, as Rick Rubin helps Neil put the rock back into “Love on the Rocks.” Diamond has always been a fascinating figure in music, and hopefully again he will be recognized as one of the great songwriters of this era, along with Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer-Sager. And yes, he could indeed become `super cool’ once again.
Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man
Neil Diamond – Three Chord Opera
Leonard Cohen – Songs of Love and Hate