12 Songs
Tom Gray
Thu, 02 Mar 2006

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have an opinion on Neil Diamond, most of them sadly centred around the fact that the man just ain’t cool enough anymore.

But love him or hate him, you can’t deny that the man can write a cracking pop song. Whether it’s for himself, or the legions of artists without the kudos to write their own songs (hang your head in shame, Steve Hofmeyer).

From the evergreen ‘Sweet Caroline’ to ‘Red Red Wine’, and ‘Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon’, Diamond has ensured that he’s kept in hot dinners well into his retirement.

And so by the late nineties, it seemed that Neil had finally been consigned to the flea market record racks and occasional greatest hits package come Christmas time. And with a musical legacy such as his, you couldn’t blame him for a taking a well deserved rest. But Neil didn?t bank on producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin.

Rubin is something of a musical fixer-upper. Like the property developer who looks at an old wreck and sees shadows of former glory, Rubin famously turned his talents on Johnny Cash, bringing him to a new generation of fans through the monumental ‘American Recordings’ series. It was only a matter of time then, until Rubin looked at Diamond and saw, well, a gem.

Rubin follows a pretty simple concept: take a grizzled old singer, make him take stock of where he’s been, look at his earliest recordings, then send him away to write songs that capture his roots. Lots of songs. A full year’s worth of songs, if you believe the liner notes.

But the real magic happens in the studio, where Rubin insists on the simplest of arrangements. Crisp guitar with spare backing distil the songs into their most basic form. Slap on a vocal track that showcases the best of Diamond’s roughed up folk-singer’s voice and you’ve got a classic in the making.

’12 songs’ is laidback in the extreme, albeit with the occasional flash of vintage Diamond – ‘Delirious love’ is ‘Sweet Caroline’ with her make-up stripped off and emotion laid bare. For the rest, imagine an intimate jam session, with Diamond reeling off the best (and, occasionally the worst) of his poetic musings on the nature of life and love.

The production is immaculate, the delivery heartfelt. Sure, there are a couple of screamingly mawkish lines, but Diamond has never sounded so wise, so sincere, or so damn cool as he does here.

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