Diamond Is Forever

Diamond Is Forever

How can Neil make a comeback when he never went away?

By Sara Bir

For young folks like me, liking Neil Diamond has always carried a bit of ironic coolness–because Neil Diamond is not cool. Moms and grandmas like Neil Diamond; in fact, childhood exposure to Neil Diamond songs may account for the 64-year-old performer’s current popularity with today’s teen and twenty-something lassies. It certainly made a difference for me, and it was only until after college that I found the confidence to play Neil Diamond songs unabashedly–at excessive, feel-good volumes–without fabricating excuses of cheesy nostalgia. At that point, my love of Neil Diamond ceased to be ironic; it was as unwieldy and sincere as the lyrics to “I Am . . . I Said.”

In fact, under-40 Neil Diamond fans all over the world are casting off their cloaks of irony, because the inevitable has happened: with the release of his new album, 12 Songs (Sony), the man that Rolling Stone magazine dubbed “the Jewish Elvis” is genuinely cool. And he’s another thing he’s never really been before: subtle. Though he’s spent decades sashaying in sequins across the stages of arenas and amphitheaters worldwide, the rootsy auteur he’s been all along has never been more apparent.

Is Rick Rubin to thank for this? The megabearded megaproducer (enigmatic co-founder of Def Jam records, he’s worked with artists from Public Enemy and Slayer to Donovan) approached a recently retired-from-touring Diamond in 2003 with the idea of collaborating on an album. Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash resulted in the arrestingly sparse American Recordings I–IV, records that rank among the best work of Cash’s career. But unlike the Cash-Rubin albums, which mined a cluster of seemingly unlikely material penned by everyone from Trent Reznor to Will Oldham, 12 Songs contains nothing but Diamond originals.

The man has not lost his touch. Some of these could have emerged straight from his mid-1960s Tin Pan Alley days, which brought us such gems as “The Boat That I Row” and “I’m a Believer.” And of course all of the songs (“Hell Yeah” in particular) feature the up-front, occasionally convoluted and always highly introspective lyrics that Diamond has delivered since “Shiloh.”

The Jewish Elvis? More like the Jewish Robert Frost.

Mortality casts a longer shadow across 12 Songs than Diamond’s previous work. Instead of the virile, ruby port intonations of yore, Diamond’s vocals have aged, rich and gently burnished, into a worldly tawny port. (There’s a great picture in the liner notes of a gray-haired Diamond seated in the recording studio, clouded in a haze of smoke that rises from the fat, brown cigar poised between his fingers.)

Restrained instrumentation both hinders and elevates 12 Songs. Diamond took up playing the guitar for the first time in years for the album, which features an almost all-acoustic sound with soft swashes of piano, organ, Chamberlain and strings. Are Diamond’s songs more affecting with such a pared-down background? Yes and no. True, 12 Songs has the immediacy of intimacy, but it’s not immediately catchy. “Delirious Love” is one joyful exception, capturing the jangly buoyancy of Diamond’s most upbeat classics and hinting at the mini-symphony rocker it could be. Ballads such as “Oh Mary” and “Create Me” benefit more from the bracing simplicity, carrying with them none of the schmaltziness of Diamond’s easy-listening torch ’70s songs.

12 Songs is flawed as an album–there are a few too many mid-tempo tracks–but it succeeds as an experiment, allowing us to enjoy Neil Diamond the Man instead of Neil Diamond the Entertainer. It’s a rewarding coda in a career that’s added so many standards to the modern songbook. “Sweet Caroline,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Cracklin’ Rosie”–you are just as likely to hear beer-soaked, tin-eared renditions of these at the karaoke bar as you are Muzak versions at the drugstore.

A Neil Diamond song–no matter who happens to be performing it–is instantly recognizable for its trademark melodic but dorky swagger. 12 Songs muffles both the swagger and the dork factor, but for both old fans and newcomers, it’s pure Neil Diamond. Buy a copy for yourself and one for Mom, and let her luxuriate–along with Neil Diamond himself–in unfettered coolness.

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