Neil Diamond gets introspective

Neil Diamond gets introspective

Jordan Reimer
Princetonian Contributor

I’d heard the legend of Neil Diamond: the sequined jumpsuits, the bubblegum pop for the middle-aged, the kitsch. Diamond’s glam rock was the innocent six-year-old brother to Alice Cooper’s angst-ridden teenager. But the women who swooned over him in the ’70s came at the expense of his musical credibility, which he had once achieved as a Brill Building songwriter alongside the likes of Paul Simon and Carole King.

Out of respect for full disclosure though, I must admit that my musical knowledge of Diamond was previously limited to the Jack Black cover in “Saving Silverman” and the punk cover of “Sweet Caroline” by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

That is, until I heard Diamond’s latest album, “12 Songs.” The cover is a simple photo of the artist holding his acoustic guitar against a pure white background. Even the title — “12 Songs” — denotes the simplicity and humility that the album seeks to convey. It immediately separates itself from the artist’s reputation for overdone pomp. The songs suggest a similar introspective message — all 12 are written in the first person, as are the titles of almost half the tracks.

The album begins with a simple count-in — we are immediately introduced to Neil the man, not the artist. It is a subtle and telling moment. The song itself, “Oh Mary,” is easily one of the most infectious tunes I’ve ever heard, and you will undoubtedly find yourself singing the hook by the song’s end. It is followed by the album’s best track, “Hell Yeah,” which finds Diamond contemplating his musical past, concluding with his appreciation for his life. It is Diamond at his most raw, most livid, and though he is not exactly at his best melodically, this flaw only serves to heighten the intensity.

The first half of the album is replete with somber introspection, though we still can’t stop feeling uplifted by the music. While the album is mostly full of emotional sentiment and usually lends itself to balladry, there are moments of especially intense exhilaration. This is most evident in the rollicking acoustic and slide guitars of “Delirious Love,” a song dedicated to the ecstatic emotions of, you guessed it, love. The subsequent tune, “I’m On to You,” a solid and spirited send-off to a former flame, seems to be begging for a mash-up in the hands of a deft DJ with Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and the Doors’ “Love Me Two Times.”

Unfortunately, the album’s strong beginning gives way to a mostly mediocre second half. Diamond seems to have confused sluggish, almost spoken, melody with heartfelt sincerity, and the effort largely fails. The lyrics are mostly vapid (“I’m a man of faith/And faith is something you can’t see/But if we want to make it through/Faith is how it’s got to be”) and the music often seems uninspired.

The album also serves to solidify the age-old adage, “you can take the songwriter out of the pop, but you can’t always take the pop out of the songwriter.” In the songs “Save Me a Saturday Night” and “We,” the listener is treated to tunes featuring the kinds of melodies and hooks that are familiar from his earlier career. While these might have sounded corny with lush orchestration, a proclivity of Diamond’s in the days of yore, the glitz is somewhat mitigated by a simple guitar riff with light percussion.

“Save Me” is a pretty enjoyable (with an almost-ironic jingle bell harmonic progression) window to what Diamond was once like, though it borders on cheesy (“Love is all about chemistry … /It isn’t math or ancient history … /Love is all about WE”). The album as a whole, however, stands as a solid testament to a man become weary and rugged with age, revealing his inner core like a grandfather sitting by the fireplace with a circle of children before him listening to the old man’s life.

Produced by hip-hop/rock guru Rick Rubin, “12 Songs” can almost be billed as a duet of Diamond and Rubin. Still, Rubin’s genius seems to be in his utter lack of presence — each song is presented with only a single vocal track backed by acoustic guitar, and only sometimes with a bare minimum of quiet strings, piano and soft percussion. In fact, there are no drums in the album at all. The simplicity of the music forces the listener to focus on Diamond’s voice and lyrics — a challenge well worth the while.

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