Neil Diamond 12 Songs

Neil Diamond
12 Songs
[Columbia; 2005]
Rating: 4.1

Before Neil Diamond made his name as an arena-packing performer, he made his living as a Brill Building songwriter. You probably know the hits he penned for others (“I’m a Believer”, “Red Red Wine”) as well as the many he emblazoned with his distinctive gravel-and-fireworks baritone. Yeah, the dentures-foaming fervor he inspires in his fans has made him an easy joke-butt, but that’s why 12 Songs arrives with such a perfect Hollywood pitch. Rick Rubin, who helmed Johnny Cash’s acclaimed final recordings (of which American III: Solitary Man was named after a Diamond tune), was supposed to pull pop’s consummate showman out of the shadow of his own glitz, shining new light on the man and, especially, his songs.

Well, it don’t walk. As an exhibition of Diamond’s songcraft, 12 Songs can be forgiven for eschewing covers, even though spare renditions of unlikely material contributed to the success of Cash’s Rubin-produced efforts (belt me “Terrible Lie” and I’ll spot you two-tenths of a ratings point, Diamond). The songwriting, however, is the problem. While the man behind 1973’s character-album Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the star of The Jazz Singer certainly used to be a master of sublimely kitschy melodrama, and a levelheaded reappraisal of his best pop– “Forever in Blue Jeans”, “Cracklin’ Rosie”, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, “Sweet Caroline”– is overdue, Diamond once told Barbra, “Used-to-bes don’t count anymore/ They just lay on the floor.”

The bulk of 12 Songs tends toward the somber, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” variety of Diamond hit, except with self-important pseudo-wisdom instead of Pulp Fiction creepiness. Rubin dresses-down the compositions in sparse, close-miked arrangements Boomerized with softly picked acoustic guitars, unobtrusive strings, and “Like a Rolling Stone” organs– the type of production many listeners still mistake for lack thereof. It’s been said that Diamond’s style could use more adornment than it gets here, but Rubin’s actually done a masterful job; mawkish break-up ballad “Evermore” starts with an illusion of intimacy– studio banter, solo strums– then glides into a processional rhythm before ramping up to maximalist strings, horns, and that goosebumps-desperate croon. The song still doesn’t bring me flowers: “Was it love or just illusion?/ All I see is our confusion”.

Rubin’s got experience aplenty coddling codgers– Cash, Jagger, Cuomo– but Diamond doesn’t wear imminent mortality gracefully. “Hell Yeah” is a “My Way” misfired near Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, all stream-of-consciousness platitudes and vain posterity-posturing. The point is, hell yeah he knows he’ll be missed when he’s dead, and that he’s running out of time. Still, he’s lived a life full of love (“love’s a gift that’s made for giving”), “a life that’s made for caring”, in a fishbowl on shaky ground up in the clouds. He also “walked the line,” oops.

Interestingly overlooked in the raft of positive press already greeting this album is Diamond’s “A Man of God”, in which he sounds just like a senile, self-righteous deathbed convert. I like Diamond’s voice as much as the next guy, but dude tells us he thinks it’s God’s. He also confidently assures us he’s going to heaven when he dies (phew) and that apparently he’s “a man of peace.” What, no Presidential Medal of Freedom? Diamond’s “faith is something you can’t see” line is second only to “a friend is someone you need” from E.T.-inspired 1982 Diamond schmaltzfest “Heartlight” for boneheaded obviousness.

Not all of Diamond’s new songs go awry. Most just go away, their melodies dissipating, their lyrics flimsy even through those tremendous pipes. “Delirious Love” is the most uptempo tune, bouncing on the “then spring became the summer” side of “Sweet Caroline” (a special-edition bonus track includes Brian Wilson in the delirium). Diamond intones that “love is all about we” and “it can keep you dry on a rainy day” on the closing “We”, which oompahs like Sir Paul’s “When I’m 64”. Of course, Macca is currently shilling for retirement services– something even the most accomplished songwriters might eventually want to consider. Today!

-Marc Hogan, November 22, 2005

Click to rate this post!
[Total: 0 Average: 0]