The “12 Songs” of Diamond
Rhinestone Balladeer Returns to his Solid Pop Roots
Neil Diamond has undoubtedly earned a place in the annals of great American songscribes; as one of the finest talents of the Brill Building era, Diamond played a crucial role in defining just truly what it means to be a “singer/songwriter.” From there, he went on to pen some of the most instantly recognizable songs of the past 40 years: “Sweet Caroline,” “Cherry Cherry,” “Solitary Man,” the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” — just to name a few. Bands in the 80’s and 90’s revived his song catalog: UB40 had a ubiquitous hit with “Red Red Wine” while Urge Overkill scored their lone Top 40 hit with a fairly-faithful cover of “Girl You?ll Be A Woman Soon.”
Diamond’s resume boasts three number one singles and ten more in the top ten, along with 12 top ten albums and over 100 million total sold. His tours — still a regular occurrence well into his 60’s — consistently outsell most other acts; and he was the top-grossing solo touring artist of the 1990’s. The one thing that has escaped him, however, is perhaps the most important: respect. To those who were not around to directly experience his early work, he’s more likely to seem a kitschy artifact than a bona fide American great; that all seems poised to change with the release of “12 Songs” — produced by Rick Rubin, the man behind the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash’s big comeback in the 1990’s.
In 1971, “I Am…I Said” served as Diamond’s claim to what was rightfully his, come what may: “I am, I said/to no one there/And no one heard at all, not even the chair”; in 2005, the message has changed from defiant hope to affirmation. ‘Hell Yeah’ finds Diamond looking back on his career with equal parts satisfaction and blunt honesty: “So if they ask you when I’m gone/Was it everything he wanted?/When he traveled on/would he know he’d be missed?/You can tell them this: hell yeah, he did.”
Subsequent tracks seem to grow from this, as Diamond gets down to the business of classic songs about love, life, and loss; and for all of the focus on stripping down, the album is not sparse. Diamond has an irrepressible instinct for drama, and that instinct is one of the main reasons so many of his songs resonate: “Save Me A Saturday Night,” “Captain of a Shipwreck” and “What’s It Gonna Be” surprise with their genuinely intimate focus.
Ultimately, the album succeeds on a very basic level in that it offers the full range of emotions: exaltation, sadness, reflection, and hope are all present in roughly equal measure. Taken together, “12 Songs” amounts to a supremely satisfying experience that, one suspects, will only be more so with repeated listening.
While this new album hasn’t exactly transformed Diamond, it does offer a new filter through which to view him. Certainly no bad can come of this new wave of attention, but it’s also true that long after the national music press (most of which have raved about “12 Songs”) move on the next hot record, Diamond will still be doing what he does best — and if it takes Rick Rubin to remind people why they should care then, that?s fine; but for those who forget again when the dust settles, those who don’t dig into great compilations like “Early Classics”…well, it?ll be their loss…
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