He’s mad, compulsive, paranoid but basically, he’s happy

He’s mad, compulsive, paranoid but basically, he’s happy.
by sweary – written on 26.09.06 – Rating: (5 of 5 possible stars)

Advantages It might just be genius
Disadvantages It’ll never be cool
I had to request DooYoo to add the two Neil Diamond albums I?ve reviewed here and then, when I?m thinking about buying 12 Songs and looking for a sneak online preview what?s the first thing that comes up on Google? An empty DooYou category for 12 songs and an invitation to users to write a review. It dangled there like a big juicy carrot. They?re taunting me, I thought, daring me to buy 12 Songs and write ANOTHER Neil Diamond review. I?m afraid, in a roundabout way, even though there?s a fine review there now, it?s worked. Except that I write light, fluffy jokey prose and this album is not light or fluffy. It?s difficult to do justice to something like 12 Songs because you see unlike the others, which I merely like, this album MEANS something to me. So I?d expect a connection from say, Pink Floyd or the Beatles but really not from Mr Spangly. Scary huh? Hmm… We?ll come back to that one later.

I have a theory about creativity. It’s this. If you want somebody to think creatively you need to give them strict parameters in which to do it. The tighter you squeeze, the further the idea goes when it finally pops out… it’s like squeezing a bar of soap in the bath. So if you want people to have big ideas, you should apply a laid back and supportive working environment and tight operational constraints. That way, your artist is compelled to think laterally to achieve results and relaxed and confident enough to be able to. Take away any boundaries and arty people don’t know where to start or – once they’ve finished with the staring at the blank paper going “now what?” stage and actually started work – stop. The whole thing gets out of hand or worse, a bit flabby.

So applied to our Spangly friend, Mr Neil Leslie Diamond, it goes like this. If you can only afford a few instruments, you’re going to make very good use of them, you’re going to do striking and original things with the ones you have because you can’t afford the numbers of or very possibly the actual instruments, you really want. If you’re worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, there are no barriers. It must be difficult not to indulge yourself in a complete orgy of instrumentation and general barkingness…. especially when you couldn’t originally. It’s like stuffing your face with cream cakes because you spent your entire childhood hungry. Or, at least, that’s how he explains it….. not the cake bit though, obviously, that’s my line.

Enter Mr Rubin. Top flight, mega trendy record producer who works with anyone who interests him, from the Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash. Apparently he has been wanting to collaborate with Mr Diamond for several years (some sources say 10). However, Mr D doesn’t display the confidence levels you’d expect of the average rock god. His reaction was along the lines of “he’s mega trendy and I’m not he must be taking the piss” and it took his colleagues and friends several years to convince him that he really ought to call this Rubin bloke back. The result was this collection of songs. Apparently there are 36…. these are the first 12…. well…. actually the first 13.

12 Songs has been lauded as the album which might just make Mr Diamond hip but even so, I approached it with some trepidation. The Cash American albums are legendary and I have a couple myself which I thoroughly enjoy listening to but the Spangly One’s later work is a challenge. Ok so it’s not short on good choons – play one on an acoustic guitar and you’ll see – but they tend to be buried under the kind of orchestra which, if you joined up the musicians end to end, might conceivably stretch around the world several times. His early work for all it’s melodrama and theatre, has a human to human intimacy, a chatty connection with the listener, which is conspicuously absent from his later stuff. The result is that I find the later work a bit plasticky and cold. It’s as if he knows what to do and is going through the motions rather than truly engaged in it – or at least that’s how it comes across to me. To quote stand up comedian and writer Alan Watt, because he puts it much better than I can.

“He’s a brilliant songwriter…. His songs are very emotional, very powerful, but there’s also something sort of manipulative about them, like he knows he’s pushing your buttons.”

Spot on Mr Watt.

Then there’s the credibility side. The early stuff is all Smoky n’ Marvin – you can listen to it in public …er… mostly – with your head held high. The later stuff is not so much Smoky n’ Marvin as Val n’ Des. Ouch.

What Rick Rubin seems to have done, bless him, is sit the Spangly One down with a pile of his own records and ask the question anyone who appreciated him in the 60s must have been wondering all these years. “What in the name of heaven have you been doing? What happened?” And the result is he goes back to basics and creates what for me is one of the most interesting, compelling and absorbing albums I’ve heard in a long time. The connection is back, with a vengeance. This is an older and wiser man. There isn’t the carefree open feel of the early stuff, it’s darker, more intricately layered – an altogether more complicated person…. but actually a much more likeable one. He’s been around and he’s more confident, more assured and very comfortable with who he is – it’s different yet the same and that’s intriguing. Despite the strong sense of his own mortality which comes across, this Neil Diamond is also, quite obviously, a happier man who is grateful for his lot. The storms of life are described with emotional intensity – but by a man who knows he can weather them. The atmosphere is gothic and emotionally charged but for all the minor chords and emotional angst, when you get to the end you wonder how the happy ever after was ever in doubt.

Despite repeated “bitching and complaining” and general efforts to wriggle out of it because he didn’t think he was good enough, he plays his own guitar on all the numbers. As Rick Rubin said, “he’s amazingly insecure about his musicianship”- yes I read up on this album a lot before I dared take the plunge. However, despite what the Spanglemeister described as “tantrums” on his part Rubin insisted.

Don’t expect an un-plugged. It’s still the Man Who Likes Instruments but there are less of them. We’re back to the more spare arrangements of old, the jangly acoustic guitars of the 60s return but they are less sparkling, more stately, more controlled. There is also an autumnal feel in both the arrangements and the instruments chosen – after all, the protagonist of this album is a 64 year old man. In places you can hear Rubin’s influence, or what sounds like the thumb print of the musical arrangers he used with Cash, especially in the piano.

It’s quintessential Neil Diamond, that is, barking and melodramatic, yet different in that I find myself listening as intently to the lyrics as I do to the music. Most of the Spangly One’s albums have me chuckling at some point. This one is too weighty for that… well… almost. Not that it isn’t uplifting. It’s one of the most honest pieces of song writing I’ve heard from anyone. This album is about a person. The fact he’s mega-famous is by the by. He could be fictional but I’d guess he’s mostly the real deal since The Shiny One admits many of these songs are about the collapse of his second marriage and the arrival of his current partner, in 1996. To me, this human element, alone, is enough to make it hugely appealing. The songs speak candidly of his situation now; his love, his family, his life, his mistakes and his faith. Things that make up the basic, day to day business of being a human being. The sense of mortality does give it the feel of a living epitaph but to me, it’s more about someone who has accepted who they are, even the bits that make them unhappy sometimes, or that they don’t like. It’s someone at peace with themselves and at ease with the concept of dying making sure they’re all square with the world and saying “hello everyone, this is who I am”.

There is more than a nod some of the universal this-happens-to-everyone aspects of existence – that you only learn how much strength of character you have when it gets put to the test. That you only discover the strength of your principles when living by them is difficult. That you will make mistakes but dwelling on them afterwards will eat you away from the inside. That when you stuff up, the best way to live with it is to repair the damage as best you can at the time and then move forward. That these negative things can become positive, almost welcome, because of the way you can grow as a result. It’s about relationship choices, make ups, break ups, regrets and redemption through love. About learning to be who you are and learning to enjoy it.

His voice is not what it was, it’s still effortless, still expressive, possibly more than it was in the late 60s albums I’m comparing this to but it’s gravelly and lived in, sometimes it even wobbles. Gone is the silky smooth, chocolatey baritone I’m used to but in it’s place is something less impossibly perfect with more substance, more humanity and more grit.

You’re not going to love 12 Songs straight away, you’ll have to listen more than once and on occasions that may be almost against your will but it will come back and haunt you. When I was thinking about buying this album I listened to the 20 second snippets on iTunes. A couple of weeks later a song popped into my head and stayed there. Nothing could shift it, even though I hadn’t a clue what it was. It took me another week to work out it was the lead-off track “Oh Mary”. That’s when I bought the album.

You’re unlikely to give it more than a 7 or 8 out of 10 and you probably won’t be able to weed out one “outstanding” track …. the thing is though, six months, a year later you’ll still be giving it 7 or 8 out of 10. When you pick it up and play it after a while you’ll still be surprised by the emotional intensity of the thing. Trying to reconcile the man speaking in these songs, albeit with small doses of melodrama, with the Dark Lord of the Spangly Sith is difficult. It’s also part of what makes it so intriguing.

No complaints here, the album comes with lots of info. A gate fold cardboard case – no crappy jewel case to break into a thousand pieces on day two, you can drop it as many times as you like – a book of glossy photos and some slightly over the top but nonetheless candid and interesting sleeve notes… there are also some moody black and white photos of the man himself – with one in colour – but these are all incidental shots of the album being made; no sparkly shirts, no soft focus and no scary staring. In all of them, he is intensely focussed on something else, rather than the lense, which lends him an air of vulnerability. Shots include Mr Spangly playing the guitar, at the piano with Rubin, Rubin on his own at the mixing desk and a great shot from the back of Mr Not So Spangly sitting in a director’s chair, legs casually crossed playing his guitar. On the back of the chair, a post it note with “ND” written on it in felt tip. Like they’re going to forget? I don’t know why but I find this one image particularly poignant.

Mr Sweary was IN THE ROOM the first time I listened to this album.

This is a song about being in love in a slightly obsessive and not altogether happy way. The repeat of the “oh Mary” is to replicate the obsessive nature of love when you think about the person so much it starts to get uncomfortable and when your brain repeats their name again and again to the point where you’re almost bored of hearing it and yet, don’t want to stop. The obsessive stage.

“A feeling I know well.” Says the Spangly One in the interview I watch, grinning as he does so in a way that is, frankly, alarming.

Identifying isn’t difficult here. In most relationships I reach a stage where my sense of humour is all that stands between me and some legal unpleasantness, an exclusion order and prison.

A slow count in, you can definitely hear the Rubin production on this one with the accentuated piano chords on the first beat of each bar, like a mantle clock. Dark, elegant, angst-ridden. A common theme about taking your chances while they are there and following your heart.

Song Score: A hugely intense 7/10

“I’m a lucky old dreamer….”

No matter what Mr Diamond may say in denial, “it’s just about an older guy, talking to a younger guy…” pish Mr D I do not believe you! This is an epitaph. It’s also that general theme of someone learning to like themselves and happy with and glad to be who they are. In this particular case, that someone is Neil Diamond but I think what he’s trying to say is that it could just as easily be me or you.

Look out for the er… wurlitzer (almost) keyboard in the middle eight. That wobble fits with looking through glass but has that etherial, somebody’s about to go to heaven sound some of us may know and love from old films. A perfect fit with all those references to “when I’m gone”.

Song Score: ND Does My Way a cheesy but magnificent 9/10

A declaration of eternal friendship or love or maybe both.

“If your gold mine comes up empty I will help you work the claim, if you’re captain of a shipwreck I’ll be first mate to your shame.”

Neil Diamond does Bridge Over Troubled Water. I hope he realises that after this he will never EVER get away with writing crap lyrics again. When I get emotional and Mediterranean about the way I feel for Mr Sweary this is the kind of thing I try to tell him….

I suddenly realise I haven’t heard any drums yet. Two guitars and not much else in accompaniment here. Nothing else required though.

Song Score: Sweary lurves this… 8/10

I read this song is about the break up of his second marriage. That air of melancholy that hangs about the end of a relationship captured pretty much perfectly, when you both regret the end but can’t go back. Maybe you don’t stop loving anyone, maybe you just get used to the fact you can’t have them.

The strings make their first appearance and the middle eight, like aural handwriting, epitomises the Diamond sound. It couldn’t have been written by anyone else which is kind of bad and kind of good.

Song Score: 8/10

Plaintive I’ll take what you can give entreaty. Accompanying highlights, bassoon and Buddy Holly style glockenschpiel.

The bassoon here is genius, it sounds stately, up-right and um… quietly dignified.

Song Score: 8/10

A celebration of that beginning of a relationship shag-fest! Grrrr easy tiger! This reminds me of getting Mediterranean on Mr Sweary’s um… ass… I mean arse, really but it sounds less graphic to say ass, donkey um no not donkey…… fans face with hand… I might have to go and have a lie down. Lies on cold floor. Ah that’s better.

There have been uplifting moments so far but this is the first song that is actually up-beat. It releases a lot of the emotional tension built up in the first half of the album, ready to smack you round the chops with the next lot.

Song Score – a rather flustered 8/10

The absolute opposite! The moment when the scales fall from your eyes and you realise you are not in love with the person you are dating any more or at least if you still are, this is the moment when you realise, calmly and equably, that they’re not in love with you. The moment when you can say. “‘Game’s up sonny!” And walk away with your pride but without doubts or regrets.

Very cool – yes, I think I can really use that word here. Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Jazz time.

Slinky jazzy rhythm – xylophone, guitars, double bass, muted brass, that bassoon again – or is this a bass clarinet – electric piano and the first obvious appearance of drums – bongos and snare with wire brushes only though. There is still plenty of teflon left on those tonsils.

Song Score: 9/10

The teflon is still there….

There is something distinctly autumnal about this, is it the brass, those minor chords on that metal guitar? Maybe? The message, though, oozes confidence.

“I’m too old for all this phaffing about.” This song says. “I love you, you love me, you know it makes sense, you know we’re going get it on so let’s go!”

Song Score: 9/10

A cheerful and honest affirmation of his faith.

“Singing for him is like touching the sky I don’t need to know why I just know that it is. Each time I sing out I want to rejoice ’cause when I hear my voice, I believe that it’s his.”

Or to quote the film Chariots of Fire, which hardly anyone will remember.

“God made me for a purpose but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”

That line is a bit of a running joke (oh ho ho) in my family. Every time I hear this song I hear that line in my head, remember some good and funny times and have a quiet giggle.

When I was reading up on this album and trying to decide whether or not to buy it I read a couple of reviews written by people who thought that in talking about his faith the Spanglemeister had made an unwise move. But it’s personal songs like this one which give 12 Songs its punch. Singing with sincerity and conviction about what you believes takes a certain amount of courage. Where’s the harm in that?

Love the gospel wurlitzer and the sliding guitar chords.

Song score: More cheese, 6/10, it’s the weakest track but I love the middle eight.

This song could be about anything… The self acceptance thing, different stages of love, just missing people who are gone… possibly even facing death? After all, no matter how many people are there with you, you have to do the actual dying on your own.

Song Score: A dark, dark 7/10

“I worry inside, do you lie to me, lie to me? What do you hide from me?”

Hooray! I’m not the only psycho in the world. The nagging doubt scenario. Yep, been there, bought the t-shirt. If you can convince me you still love me I’ll find the key to eternal happiness.

Sadly there’s the flip side to this, the one where you know it’s true. It’s like sticking needles into your own eyes but you have to push your partner until they admit there’s something wrong. And when they do, even though it feels as if your whole life is sliding away like molten wax your overriding emotion is relief at the end of doubt.

Procul Harum keyboards, simple guitar and voice. As stark as the need under discussion.

Song Score 7/10

12. WE
Reminds me of some of the stuff the Mammas and Papas did or that song Cinderella Rockerfella. More than a hint of one man band! Quite folky with the banjo, music hall piano and yes… tuba. Like Delirious Love at five, it defuses the emotional intensity of the previous I, like many others, am a little un-nerved by the “love is all about we” (with ONE e there people) line. But this is such an out jolly song that I can overlook that!

Neil Diamond does when I’m 64.

Song Score: A chirpy 7/10

“Men are so easy, just look under the covers ’cause that’s where they’re hiding and that’s where you find them, they’re yours to discover.”

Men are very uncomplicated. Mr Sweary is always telling me this. A plea to be loved and understood.

Minimal arrangement, voice, guitar and piano but with dashes of brass and cello. This is the 13th song. Is our Spangly man superstitious?

Song Score: A touching 7/10


Delirious Love with Brian Wilson…

That’s probably all you need to know.

Song Score: A smashing, flying 9/10 ooooo oowah! Ba ba ba ba….


Three reasons…

First, I have a personal rule of life. Everything has to be all square. Every night I ask myself, if I had to go, would everyone know where they were with me, would the people who loved me know, have I said everything I need to say to everyone? For me to be a happy, rounded human being, the answer to those questions has to be yes. A lot of this album, to me, is about an ordinary man doing just that, making sure he’s all square. One man’s manifesto of life. I love that.

Two, getting serious for a moment, I guess 12 Songs rings a chord for me because it’s all about life and aspects of life I’ve been giving a lot of thought to over the past 18 months or so. Stuff like – learning to like yourself, accepting the bits you don’t like, appreciating being loved, being all square with your maker and the people you care about, always, looking to the future – however embarrassing your past may be – using shit things that happen to grow or get stronger and at the end of it all accepting it and being grateful. It’s kind of comforting to discover that no matter who you are, this is what life is, whether you earn a few hundred million dollars a year singing cheesy songs or whether you earn seven tenths of bugger all painting crappy stuff for kids and pretending you’re an artist….

Three, I like the guy. I like his candour. Making a work like 12 Songs takes courage. Talking about the album he’s about as un-spangly and self-effacing as it gets.

So, is it hip? No but it might just be genius….


12 Songs is available in pretty much any high street record shop.

I bought mine on Amazon for ?8.99 although it’s now available used for ?5.48 as I write (26.9.06) and new for ?7.99. It comes in a brown cardboard packet so you can keep it a secret from your family.

You can also download it from iTunes for ?7.99

Also available at most high street record stores…. if you’re brave enough to hand it over to the sneering assistant for payment. Summary: Reasons why I like 12 Songs, reasons why you might….

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