Review: Neil Diamond, reinvented and re-energized
By SEAN DALY
Published December 11, 2005
On the new 12 Songs, the most ballyhooed Neil Diamond album in decades, the balladeer’s love life is still stranded on the rocks, but the grandiose sonic cheese he so often likes to slather has been replaced by a stark, stripped bleakness and the pure power of That Voice. There are moments of such unfettered vulnerability here – especially the hymnal grace of opener Oh Mary – it’s almost too painfully pretty at times.
Talk about a solitary man: With the exception of a few notable session players – including Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, organist Billy Preston and Beach Boy Brian Wilson adding “ooh” on a bonus cut – the somber, emotionally rich 12 Songs is essentially the sound of one man, his guitar and a whole lotta heartbreak. Sing along if you dare.
You can thank producer-svengali Rick Rubin for sparking Diamond’s long-dormant songwriting skills. As well as producing such varied acts as rap progenitors Run-DMC and the art-rocking Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rubin is the visionary responsible for Johnny Cash’s late-career renaissance on those chilling American Recordings. Rubin is a dude who demands authenticity, not gimmicks, and he sure gets his way on 12 Songs, which has to rank right up there with Hot August Night on Diamond’s list of recorded achievements.
“If you’re asking for my time, isn’t much left to give you,” Diamond, 64, sings on Hell Yeah, a revealing bit of autobiography in which the singer admits that his fears of death have been somewhat soothed by knowing that he did the best he could. Diamond is the King of Crescendoes, of course, and seeing as how he wrote the words and the music for the entire album, Hell Yeah and several other cuts slow-build to relatively rousing finishes. Not like such old hits as America or I Am . . . I Said, mind you, but trust me: There’s no mistaking whose album this is.
A few tracks pick up the beat a bit, including the SoCal soft-rock of Delirious Love and the smoky, sorta-blues of I’m on to You. But keeping things light and rocking is not what Diamond or Rubin are interested in here. It’s the sad stuff that slays you, and Diamond’s voice – mildly croaky at times but still a powerhouse – is up to the task.
The album’s two best songs are its most emotionally walloping. On the vaguely pleading Captain of a Shipwreck, with its scratchy guitar plucks and soft keyboard wanderings, the singer tells a paramour that no matter how bad things get – or how lousy she might treat him – he’s not leaving: “If you’re captain of a shipwreck, I’ll be first mate to your shame.”
And then there’s the downright spectacular Evermore, in which Diamond hints that the lovers in Captain of a Shipwreck didn’t survive the storm after all: “Promises got left behind, and reason fell between the lines,” he sings in a wavering basso profundo. Evermore, which has become a hot Internet download, is the rare spot where Rubin allows bombast, including swelling Hammond organ and a glorious string section. It’s a doozy for sure, especially when the song quiets for that dagger of an ending, when Diamond hushes those seven devastating words:
“Love you still. Guess I will. Evermore.”
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic
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Neil Diamond, 12 Songs (Columbia) Grade: A