The veteran singer-songwriter can offer more than sentimental pop songs. Just ask Rick Rubin, writes Chris Campion

Neil Diamond, 12 Songs

The veteran singer-songwriter can offer more than sentimental pop songs. Just ask Rick Rubin, writes Chris Campion

Sunday January 22, 2006

Neil Diamond was the most successful solo touring artist of the Nineties and has a following that grows ever more fanatical with age. But up until now he is the last person one would describe as hip or cool.

The buzz around 12 Songs centres on the involvement of Rick Rubin, the only producer whose oeuvre takes in acts as varied as System of a Down, Jay-Z and Johnny Cash and who can lend multi-million selling albums his own cachet of hip credibility.

It’s impossible to write about 12 Songs without acknowledging Rubin’s hand in its creation – he, after all, approached Diamond rather than the other way around – and, specifically, the series of albums Rubin recorded with Johnny Cash, from 1994 up until the singer’s death in 2003. The records employed a bare-boned production style and were ruthlessly keyed into the singer’s outsider reputation. That Cash sounded as if he was almost at death’s door when he recorded them made the choice of songs – even cheese like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – all the more poignant. Cash’s third album with Rubin even set the seeds in motion for 12 Songs by taking its title from a cover of Diamond’s ‘Solitary Man’.

Here, Rubin employs the same sober production style, working on the principle that stripping the songs down to their barest elements reveals the underlying craft. While unable to lend the project the kind of gravitas that Cash had as a performer, Diamond brings to bear his years of songwriting experience. He cut his teeth crafting hits for the Monkees for Don Kirshner in the Brill Building. He knows how to turn a tune and craft a clever lyric. But even at his most dour, he’s always been a feel-good singer-songwriter; Leonard Cohen with a smiley face. And at his best when writing frivolous bubblegum pop like ‘I’m a Believer’ and ‘Cherry Cherry’.

And this is the principal flaw of 12 Songs. By laying the songs bare, Rubin also inadvertently strips them of the energy that gives them their power in the first place. So while a song like ‘Delirious Love’, which is all about being caught up in a riptide of emotions, at least benefits from the added brio of its performance here, one feels that the whimsical ‘Save Me a Saturday Night’ would be better served in the hands of, say, the Archies. The more portentous tracks such as ‘Create Me’ and ‘Face Me’ come off worse, sounding more leaden than affecting.

Just as a great story or a joke is all in the telling, a great song is all in the delivery. And you come away from 12 Songs feeling that Diamond may not, after all, be the best interpreter of his songs. Despite all the folksy hokum in Diamond’s sleevenotes about his songwriting process, 12 Songs should be seen less as a creative reawakening than the inevitable meeting of two powerhouse commercial entities.

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