If rehab can turn a rock star into a functional human being, then it has to be a good thing. None of us is happy about living in a world where Pete Doherty never phones his mum and his teeth are eroding faster than Dover.
But whether a successful spell in rehab increases the sum total of great art is another matter. Given the amount of rubbish that rock’s Hall of Famers turn out year after year, it’s a miracle that no one has stumped up the cash for an artistic rehab centre. It would be a place where, say, Van Morrison can check in and a kindly nurse takes him track by track through Veedon Fleece, stopping only to explain that we need another album of hotel-lobby jazz from him as urgently as man-lit needs another Tony Parsons novel.
And who would you employ to oversee such a centre? More than anyone, surely Rick Rubin would be the first man to approach. It was Rubin, of course, who steered Johnny Cash through the iconic American Recordings of his final years. Donovan’s only decent album in three decades – Sutras, in 1996 – was also steered by Rubin. What were the chances that Rubin might do the same for Neil Diamond? The producer was clearly a fan, as evidenced by the inclusion of Diamond’s Solitary Man on a Cash album. With that in mind it’s no surprise that it’s this Diamond, rather than the sequined parody of latter years, that 12 Songs lays bare.
After a succession of albums that mostly neglected his songwriting roots, it’s a revelation to discover that Diamond can still pen songs that echo the yearning simplicity of his work from the late 1960s. At the same time it’s a set that makes a virtue of its creator’s advanced years. Framed by a plaintive violin, on Oh Mary the 65-year-old exhorts his subject not to let love pass her by: ‘I’ve been around/ And I know what happens.’
At times, you wonder exactly what Rubin does to get his artists so focused on their own mortality. Bergman films? Medical care pamphlets? Whatever the means, it’s hard to deny the power of results such as the hymnal Create Me – especially on the bridge, where that tarry timbre intones: ‘How many seasons have we endured?/ How many fields yet to plough?’ What’s it Gonna Be? is a repeat-play delight – a lover’s leap of faith painted in simple, twilit brush-strokes.
Of course, this being Neil Diamond, you’re never too far away from that slightly scary point where he revs up his motor for the big ending. It’s a trait that makes his best songs life-affirming (Sweet Caroline) and his less memorable songs inadvertently funny.
Hell Yeah isn’t a bad tune, but as it gradually transpires that he’s written himself a My Way, it’s hard not to laugh – especially on the gasket-blowing climax, in which he tells us that he too ‘walked the line’.
Much, much better is Evermore, in which Diamond appears to declare that the collapse of his second marriage has failed to dent his faith in love’s redemptive powers. This time you’re with him all the way – from the unadorned strumming that ushers in the song to the Spectoresque major chords sweeping the strings and – oh yes – timpani that render it airborne for the last couple of minutes. Just like the similarly triumphant Forever in Blue Jeans, from 1978, you feel at the core of it all that he’s singing to you and you alone.
This album is not an unqualified success, but when it works it’s nonetheless thrilling to learn that after all these years Neil Diamond remembers exactly where he left his mojo.