Neil Diamond:12 Songs::A classic, for better or worse


November 14, 2005
Neil Diamond:12 Songs::A classic, for better or worse
Neil Diamond: 12 Songs
Rating: *** (A Must-Listen)

Neil Diamond’s success can be described as the sincere, hard-earned mastery of a completely disingenuous form, that of the three-to-five minute pop single. After forty-plus years, his biggest influences continue to be Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway musical, and his songs evoke the emotional bluntness of both. Not only is his material straightforward, but it often speaks to experiences most susceptible to sentimentality: the difficulties and restorative powers of love.

To argue on behalf of Diamond’s stature as an entertainer demands that one reconciles with his lyrics, which even Diamond himself might admit make liberal use of clich?. As an aside, I generally consider it unfair to print pop lyrics out of context. Though they are sometimes like poetry, their effect is by design incomplete without accompaniment. The most moving often seem shallow without melody; and conversely, what seem the most sophisticated on paper tend to sound long-winded when set to music. Since Diamond almost always errs on the side of the former, pairing familiar sentiments with flawless melodies, scrutinizing his lyrics would be to do him a disservice. Besides, Diamond the musician seems well aware of the limitations of Diamond the lyricist (This especially comes through in the self-effacing humor of his public persona), and therein lies the key to the popularity of Diamond the performer: Excelling in a dishonest medium through honesty with himself….

When I say that Diamond’s melodies are flawless I mean that, taken on their own terms, they achieve the set of functions they ostensibly set out to do, touching on the intended emotions and quickly entering the memory. And by dishonest I mean that no universal experience can be adequately addressed and resolved in three to five minutes without reaching the most banal or reassuring conclusions. Pop music, like a good deal of mass entertainment, depends on simplifying emotion in aims of reaching the largest possible audience.

Yet as any genre of entertainment endures long enough to become an institution, the refinement of its commonalities becomes the foundation of a sort of classicism; and classicism of any sort is inherently valuable, if nothing else for reflecting the values a group of people wants, even desires to sustain. Producer Rick Rubin’s solemn approach to 12 Songs is rooted in an idealistic impression of Neil Diamond as a sort of pop classicist and, in turn, in reshaping the paradoxical concept of flawless dishonesty into something resembling an eternal truth.

Rubin makes 12 Songs such an affecting piece of revisionism by the same strategy with which Diamond writes such affecting songs: impeccable craftsmanship. There are very few tricks or embellishments to the approach; the sound is determined by the intimacy of mostly acoustic instruments commanded by great musicians (including the Beatles’ organist Billy Preston and string/horn arranger David Campbell, who’s worked on Beck?s albums). The aesthetic isn?t that different from the one Rubin created for Johnny Cash’s final output, what could be described as the sonic equivalent of a legendary singer’s sincerity. Despite the comparable earnestness of these two singers, however, few would equate the earnestness of their material. Cash built on the relatively organic traditions of folk and country; Diamond began his career as a songwriter-for-hire, and his music has always been theatrical, synthetic.

I don’t want to knock Rubin’s work on 12 Songs, simply note that it stems from a typical postmodern confusion of style with content. To regard the sincerity of delivery as the bottom-line factor in judging music, a commercial showman becomes no different from a socially-conscious aesthete and the history of both traditions get obfuscated in the process. Yet very little about the ideological mess (Like much postmodern art, Rubin’s opposing meanings virtually nullify the relevance of any) suggests how moving 12 Songs is. Such is the autonomy of music.

You can practically hear the echo in the box of Diamond’s acoustic guitar, and the mallet keyboards that color a few tracks (glockenspiel on “Save Me a Saturday Night,” vibraphone on “I’m on to You”) have a similar closeness. One song even begins with a snippet of “overheard” conversation between Diamond and Rubin in the studio. Such moments are by now familiar to contemporary albums, but they stand out strongly in a song by Neil Diamond, so famous for his professional finish. As with many other moments on 12 Songs, what is evoked here is the sound of music-making as a process. Diamond has so long been a master of music-making as a product (one definition of the pop single, after all) that any suggestion of uncertainty or vulnerability would seem deceitful at this point. But the moments fit, suggesting that in the labor one devotes to crafting a pop song lies the human touch.

Posted by Jack at November 14, 2005 10:55 PM

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