Neil Diamond: 12 Songs
ROCK & POP REVIEW
NEIL DIAMOND: 12 SONGS ****
THIS modest little collection is Neil Diamond’s first new studio album in four years. But it might as well be his first new album in 40 years from the expectation attached to the project. That’s because 12 Songs is touched by the hand of Rick Rubin, the fabulously hirsute Def Jam label owner and producer who, after years of working with rock bands and hip-hop acts, urged Johnny Cash to make career-best work in the last decade of his life. The magic of the American Recordings series was all Cash, but Rubin was clearly the catalyst. When Cash died in 2003, Diamond was next on Rubin’s wishlist.
There are many similarities with the Cash recordings – veteran artist with a reputation founded on songs which are decades old looks for a creative shot in the arm by stripping things back to the marrow. But there is one main difference – these 12 songs are Diamond originals, which sound like they could become an intrinsic part of his legacy.
Regarding the making of the album, Diamond has spoken of the “sheer freedom of creating music for its own sake”, and the simplicity of the title seems to say: “Here I am, this is what I do, no frills.” There are other musicians on this record – including such prestigious guest artists as Billy Preston on organ – but, mostly, it is distilled Diamond, divested of the Vegas razzmatazz which comes with some of his music.
Rubin recorded him singing and playing guitar at the same time and the results are as intimate, earnest and ultimately as affecting as you might hope for, as Diamond celebrates or wrestles with his significant relationships – to music, his partner, God and himself.
The album begins with Diamond counting himself in on Oh Mary, a gentle but grizzled song about the perpetual quest for love and seizing the day but also about the power of a song to communicate on a level beyond words – a theme which recurs elsewhere here. He delivers the still-haven’t-found-what-I’m-looking-for message with world-weary languor.
How old is Neil Diamond anyway – 93? You might think so, listening to the lyrics. He appears to be approaching the songs, like Cash did, as if this is his last gasp, his will and testament. Hell Yeah plays out like a deathbed address, dispensing advice, encouragement, fond recollections and grey-haired defiance, and features the great opening line: “If you’re thinking that my life is a hoot and a holler, from the start of the day to the dark of the night…” and an apparent Johnny Cash reference – “he walked the line”. Simplicity is the key, both in the songwriting and in the message.
But it is not all the reflections of an elderly mindset. There is an almost teenage longing for requited love on the pretty ballad Save Me a Saturday Night. In contrast, the stealthy country of What’s It Gonna Be makes a more self-confident and worldly bid to seduce its quarry, while love is very much requited on Delirious Love, a shouting-from-the-rooftops stomp, on acoustic guitar.
Mostly though, Diamond is less concerned with the ecstatic early stages of a relationship than with the work involved years down the line. Captain of the Shipwreck is a tender “for better, for worse” meditation containing the touching metaphor “if you’re a captain of a shipwreck, I’ll be first mate to your shame”. Evermore is the rueful flipside, about the neglect of those vows, leading to the break-up of a marriage. It features one of the few expansive arrangements on the album, building through an orchestral crescendo to climax, before the epic piano chords fall away to be replaced by an organ. In contrast to Evermore, the jazzy I’m on to You takes grim pleasure in the bittersweet liberation of walking out on a soured relationship.
Diamond then turns his gaze upwards on Man of God, an elegant, heartwarming, old-fashioned country gospel tune which lays the essence of his faith bare with the lines “singing for Him is like touching the sky. I don’t need to know why, I just know that it is”. He also uses religious imagery on Create Me. This track could have been a grandstanding belter. Instead, Diamond keeps it restrained and sincere and it is sure to make an impact in his live set, while We, in its Song Sung Blue simplicity, could be his latest crowd singalong.
These songs may not go down in the classic karaoke annals with standards such as Sweet Caroline and Red Red Wine as they are too subtle and modest. But, by going back to basics and letting his spirit and integrity shine through, Diamond has mined 12 gems.