Diamond in the rough shines


Posted on Fri, Dec. 02, 2005

Diamond in the rough shines

By JOAN ANDERMAN The Boston Globe

Diamond’s words and music, culled from a year of fevered writing and unrelenting editing on Rubin’s part, are equally striking. Love, faith and survival are the artist’s concerns, and at 64 he’s achieved something resembling clarity: The hypnotic chorus of “Oh Mary” requires nothing more than two words and two chords to make its meaning known.

It’s been four years since Neil Diamond put out an album and nearly 30 since he made a good one. For those who haven’t caught wind of the pre-release buzz, the new record’s title, “12 Songs,” perfectly crystallizes the stripped-down pleasures of this collection, which was masterminded by Rick Rubin, the producer responsible for Johnny Cash’s late-career “American Recordings” series.

Rubin works similar magic with Diamond — whose early years as a pop-rock songwriter and recording artist have been obscured by three decades of sequins, saccharine and melodrama. This album is, arguably, an even greater achievement than Cash’s comeback, which was a return to form for an artist whose credibility was never in question. What Rubin has done for Diamond is allow him to be seen in a radically new light: a spot that couldn’t be more different from the theatrical glitter to which he — and his audience — had grown accustomed.

The arrangements are stark and somber: a few acoustic instruments and one voice, for the most part, infused with a whiff of percussion, chamber strings and judicious visitations from Billy Preston’s Hammond organ. Rock-guitar veterans Mike Campbell (Tom Petty) and Smokey Hormel (Tom Waits, Beck) pick their instruments with near-ritualistic simplicity; keyboardist Benmont Tench, a seasoned sideman and Campbell’s fellow Heartbreaker, lays down forthright fills.

With the exception of a Brian Wilson collaboration on an alternate version of “Delirious Love” that sounds like a vintage Beach Boys single, the core trio’s ruminations form the foundation of the disc’s emotional landscape. But the hired hands aren’t the only ones who are ruminating, and it’s not just unadorned settings — such a novelty for a Neil Diamond record — that make “12 Songs” a surprise and a success.

Diamond’s words and music, culled from a year of fevered writing and unrelenting editing on Rubin’s part, are equally striking. Love, faith and survival are the artist’s concerns, and at 64 he’s achieved something resembling clarity: The hypnotic chorus of “Oh Mary” requires nothing more than two words and two chords to make its meaning known. Diamond delivers his plain-spoken poetry in humble tones: “What’s It Gonna Be” is one side of a hard conversation, and the singer, who’s forsaken his signature bravado for a world-weary intimacy, sounds like he started it in the middle of the night after a brief, troubled sleep.

“I’m a man of God/Though I never learned to pray/Walked the pathways of the heart/Found him there along the way,” go the opening lines of “Man of God –” simple verse celebrating the deepest revelation. Diamond then claims that “singing for Him is like touching the sky/I don’t need to know why.” For the first time I believe him.

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What: Neil Diamond performing with his original touring band and backup singers

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Wachovia Arena, Wilkes-Barre Township

Tickets: $75, $42.50, available at 970-7600 or ticketmaster.com

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