Rubin helps bring Diamond back into existence on ’12 Songs’

Rubin helps bring Diamond back into existence on ’12 Songs’

[published on Fri, Nov 18, 2005]

Neil Diamond

“12 Songs”

3 1/2 stars


Neil Diamond is nothing if not overdramatic.

That’s why, in the liner notes for “12 Songs,” he tells the story of coming together with producer Rick Rubin as if it’s one of the grandest collaborations to ever occur in popular music. That’s why the 64-year-old performer can’t resist bestowing life lessons in his too-earnest, all-knowing forced strain (like “this life is here and it’s made for livin’ and love’s a gift that’s made for givin'”) on “Hell Yeah.”

That’s why Diamond needed Rubin’s help to make this record.

The obvious touchstone for “12 Songs” is the Rubin/Johnny Cash “American Recordings” set, but that was a different sort of creative rebirth. Cash largely found new work in being inspired by the work of other artists, and Rubin helped him focus.

This time, Rubin has coaxed Diamond the phenomenal pop songwriter, long hibernating in high-concept projects and blustery stage shows, back into existence. (To be fair, Diamond already inched his way in this direction with 2001’s all-original “Three Chord Opera.” However, that CD also included a song called “At the Movies” which sounded like it had been inspired by a viewing of “Independence Day.” Seriously.)

To say it’s a return to his roots is a cliché, but then Diamond has met few clichés he didn’t put to work. Regardless, Rubin’s got the Solitary Man thinking simple again. Most of these are love songs – sometimes tragic, sometimes gleeful – and by keeping the musical shading gentle (Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench are among the session men), Rubin and Diamond keep the spotlight on the songcrafting.

Almost all of the 12 pieces holds up to the scrutiny. “What’s It Gonna Be” recalls vintage Diamond at his darkest, throwing down a romantic ultimatum, while “Save Me a Saturday Night” is lightweight love at it’s most hummable. “Oh Mary” is sweet and lilting, “Delirious Love” is jaunty, magnetic folk and “Hell Yeah,” for all its forced drama and reflection, is an enthralling trip through life with Uncle Neil.

But for all the success of the stripped-down approach (Rubin wouldn’t allow any backing vocals, so Diamond’s voice is the only one you hear), it could be argued the highlight of the record is a gloriously multi-tracked bonus song. It’s an alternate version of “Delirious Love” with Brian Wilson on deliriously buoyant backing vocals. Diamond growls majestic sweetness, Wilson soars on oohs, doo-doo-doos and echoed choruses, and the pair together reaches the best three minutes either one’s had since the early ’70s.

Bring on the drama.

– Bryan Wawzenek

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