Diamond’s gem


Diamond’s gem

Friday, December 2, 2005

By DAVID J. SPATZ

For a relentless perfectionist like Neil Diamond, the pursuit of excellence takes time.

In his case, it’s taken 10 years. And it’s taken 40 years.

The 64-year-old singer and songwriter, reviled by critics and adored by fans since his dusky voice first broke onto the music charts in 1966, is basking in the warm afterglow of almost universal acclaim for his latest album, “12 Songs,” which was a decade in the making and lifetime overdue.

Critics who once savaged his songs and concerts – even criticizing his ’70s-esque wardrobe of sequined shirts – are now trying to invent new superlatives to heap praise on his work.

Let’s face it: When one of your biggest critics, Rolling Stone magazine, gives your effort a four-star rating, you’ve earned those basking rights.

The album, released Nov. 8, broke onto the Billboard charts at No. 4, the highest of any of his 40-plus releases.

None of this has been lost on Diamond, who admits it’s a little “scary” to realize that his biggest detractors have actually listened to the album with an unbiased ear.

He’s quick to credit the album’s instant success to the persistence of producer Rick Rubin. Although known primarily for his work with hip-hop and hard-rock artists and also for engineering some of Johnny Cash’s greatest work near the end of Cash’s career, Rubin – a longtime fan of Diamond’s work – spent the better part of a decade pursuing the enigmatic artist.

After Diamond finally returned his phone call, it took three years for the former Brill Building tunesmith to write nearly 40 songs, which he and Rubin eventually pared down to the ones they decided to record.

The wait was worth it. “12 Songs” – actually, it’s a baker’s dozen – goes where no previous Diamond recordings have gone before. The album strays from jazz-like songs to folksy numbers to a lounge-like effort. In other words, it’s difficult to categorize – much like Diamond’s career.

Rubin, who felt Diamond’s songwriting brilliance was lost in the translation from original composition to final arrangement, stripped him and his songs down to the barest essentials. He put a guitar back in Diamond’s hands in the recording studio for the first time since the 1960s.

He put the spotlight on the songs and the singer, not the over-produced arrangements and orchestra that buried his voice on his hits from the 1960s and ’70s.

Diamond, touring behind the new release, plays Boardwalk Hall on Saturday. The show, sponsored by Caesars Atlantic City, will mark only the third time he’s performed in Atlantic City in the past 27 years.

The introverted and often moody entertainer rarely grants interviews unless he’s got something to promote. Even then, he has a reputation for being stingy with his time.

“I don’t like talking about myself,” he once told CNN’s Larry King. “The music should say everything, and the performance should say everything.”

That Diamond even became a world-class entertainer is something of an improbable tale.

Born in Brooklyn, he and Barbra Streisand – with whom he would record the 1979 hit “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” – were high school classmates who never met, yet sang in the same chorus.

Attending New York University on a fencing scholarship, Diamond was thinking of a career in medicine. Music, however, was always lurking in the background, and a few months before graduation, he quit school to work as a songwriter in the fabled Brill Building for $50 a week.

Before his own recording career took off, he was writing tunes for other artists. In fact, the biggest hit of Diamond’s career was The Monkees’ recording of “I’m a Believer,” which Diamond recorded first but never released as a single.

Neil Diamond performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Boardwalk Hall. Presented by Caesars Atlantic City. Tickets are $50, $85 and $150, available through Ticketmaster.

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