MUSIC REVIEW: Neil Diamond

MUSIC REVIEW: Neil Diamond


Neil Diamond

Title: “12 Songs”
Label: Columbia
Highlights: “Hell Yeah,” “Captain of a Shipwreck,” “Evermore,” “Delirious Love” (with Brian Wilson)
Grade: A-


Don’t ever question Neil Diamond’s songwriting. His borderline-hideous live shows that overflow with sequins and shtick, however, are a different story.

But no matter the image Diamond has cultivated — the hammy patriot (“America”), the charming rogue (“Solitary Man”) or the sappy adult-contemporary icon (“Heartlight,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”) — there is always an unfussy melody buried under even the biggest hunk of cheese.

The brilliance of “12 Songs” is that it showcases Diamond holding nothing but those minimal arrangements. Strings are sparse and tasteful. Firmly strummed acoustic guitars create the songs’ primary backdrop, with other organic instrumentation (piano, organ and upright bass) providing the shading. His lyrics hint at mortality and love both elusive and everlasting but aren’t bogged down with a sense of impending doom.

All of that can be credited to producer Rick Rubin, who extracted the soul of Johnny Cash in a similar manner in the mid-’90s. Diamond mentions in his liner notes that Rubin relished his role as editor, pushing Diamond to write more and trimming the fat with little fear of the legend in his studio.

The results are stunning, but you have to wonder what audience Diamond has in mind with this record. The middle-aged women who alternate between him and Barry Manilow are more interested in storybook romance than the rugged reminiscing of “Hell Yeah,” and fans of his slick radio fodder will find nothing to sing along with until “We,” the album’s jaunty closer that overflows with dangerously silly lyrics (“It’s not about you and it’s not about me. Love is all about we”).

This album also marks Diamond’s first intensive songwriting since 2001’s “Three Chord Opera,” itself a landmark as Diamond’s first all-original album in 27 years. But where that one spotlighted Diamond’s rustiness, “12 Songs” revels in his fully intact capabilities. The special-edition version includes two more tracks, including a second take on “Delirious Love” with Brian Wilson providing his signature high harmonies — a perfect mesh with Diamond’s gruffness.

But before you buy this, be warned: To listen to the CD on a computer, you are forced to download a program from Sony Music that can potentially harm your hard drive. Downloading the songs onto an MP3 player is also impossible with this technology — because you just know Diamond’s core audience plans to rush to their keyboards and illegally spread these songs online.

Some fans are organizing a boycott of the album. In this case, that is truly a shame because “12 Songs” is one of the most worthwhile experiences of the year.

Each new release is graded from A (the best) to F (try again).

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