ON A STICKER that adorns the front cover of this, Neil Diamond’s first album in five years, the credit “Produced by Rick Rubin” is as prominent as the one for Diamond himself. But then, Diamond hasn’t made a decent album since Beautiful Noise back in 1976, while Rubin’s seemingly mercurial talents have made him one of modern music’s pivotal figures.
Much of Rubin’s current renown stems from his work with Johnny Cash.
As the ’90s dawned, the veteran country singer was washed up and in ailing health. Over the course of four albums, between 1994 and 2002, Rubin coaxed the last drops of magic from him. In doing so, he revived Cash’s career and preserved his legacy.
No wonder Diamond came calling. Like Cash, he’s among the greatest of America’s songwritcrs. Similarly, he has been creatively bankrupt for decades. One of the last to pass through the legendary Brill Building song factory, Diamond penned staples such as I’m A Believer and Red Red Wine. His last hit album, though, was in 1980, with his soundtrack for The Jazz Singer.
THE FORMULA THAT worked so well for Cash is reapplied here. Out go the kitsch orchestrations Diamond has liberally applied to his songs in the past. Rubin strips him back to the core elements: guitar, piano, small but stately backing band (various Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Beck alumni; Billy Preston), and that great wounded growl of a voice.
Likewise, the pervading mood is one of mournful melancholy: this is a man well into his 60s looking back. The crucial difference between this and the Cash records is that, whereas Rubin brought the latter tunes to re-interpret, these are Diamond’s songs. And it may well be his strongest ever collection.
From the rhapsodic Hell Yeah to world-weary love songs such as Evermore, Diamond sounds like a man re-engaging himself with his musical heritage. Nowhere more so than on I’m On To You, a rolling voodoo boogie, and the bare-boned blues of What’s It Gonna Be, both of which echo the Dylan of Time Out Of Mind and, of course, Cash once more.
Rubin relaxes the leash just twice. Advisedly so on Delirious Love, an old-school Diamond stomper cut from the same cloth as Sweet Caroline. Not so for We, a vacuous lullaby tacked on at the end. That one false step aside, ’12 Songs is a triumph: the sound of a master falling in love with his craft all over again. PAUL REES
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