Neil Diamond and Rick Rubin are like two trains coming from opposite directions. Diamond is the veteran: forty years in the business, hit singles, Vegas, movies and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Barbra Streisand. Rubin is the hip record producer: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash’s last four albums, System of a Down and the Run-DMC and Aerosmith smash “Walk This Way”. Two guys from different sides of the tracks, but together they’ve done it. At sixty-plus, with Rubin by his side, Neil Diamond has cut an album he can be very proud of. There are gold singles on his wall; platinum-selling albums, too. Yet with 12 Songs he’s thrown a real punch: probably no hit singles, just a sustained cycle of songs that crowns what at times has been a tinsel career.
Between 1966 and 1971 Neil Diamond wrote 20 great pop songs. He managed to match Brill Building, pre-Beatles songwriting skill to a post-Dylan singer-songwriter ‘auteur’ voice and throw it not into a series of poor-selling, obscure albums, but into the pop charts. It was a run of stunning singles. “Solitary Man”. “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”. “Shilo”. “Kentucky Woman”. “I Am … I Said”. “Cracklin’ Rose”. Plus “I’m A Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” for The Monkees. All his, all with his mark. Simple chords masking a sophisticated musical brain. And an equally brilliant lyric theme: the lonely guy, suspicious of love but dying to fall into it, warning girls of the shallow traps of other men; at the same time, willing to sing his heart out for any woman he loved.
So whatever came after this – the glitz, the sequins, all the trappings that a big American career that runs to middle age can bring – at the beginning was a brilliant songwriter. And it’s back to the beginning that Rick Rubin went.
Rubin is an interesting character. He’s something of a magus figure on the LA recording scene. He looks like the kind of guy you see in coastal caravan parks: long hair, full beard, wizard eyes; dispensing wisdom to young surfers, drawing the older crowd around the camp at night. He’s ‘heavy’, possessing full-blown mystique and tremendous understanding of music and its position in the fire. Artists lucky enough to get through his door work with him again and again; a diverse range, million sellers, and those like Diamond, who Rubin picks out on his wide cultural sweep. Johnny Cash answered the call and had his career and life turned around. Diamond evidently needed convincing. The glue was what it should be at this time in Diamond’s life: music. Twelve songs. A shot at the great Neil Diamond album that until now we didn’t have. It ends Diamond as greatest-hits artist and starts him on a new journey, an old master in new fields.
In an interview Rubin referred to Diamond as “Springsteen, before Springsteen”. Diamond, in his wonderful accompanying sleeve notes, describes the listening sessions both of them had before recording started, “like two teenagers”. Diamond wanted to hear early rock’n’roll. Rubin went to Diamond’s early work, quizzing him, leading Diamond to listen to his own first recordings. Perhaps it was out of this that one vital change came. Amazingly, since the late ’60s Diamond had not played guitar on any of his records. Rubin put him back on guitar and with one stroke made him once more a singer-songwriter, not an entertainer.
The album begins with “Oh Mary”. Straight up it’s there: no theatrics, no grab at the throat. Diamond counts in. Strummed acoustic guitar, deep piano notes, the voice high up in the mix. It’s almost a folk song. Rubin’s strategy is immediately clear: a big talent is ready to reveal itself; no frills, none needed. “Hell Yeah” follows. It’s Diamond’s “My Way”, but don’t let that put you off. Again the sound is stripped back. The song climbs through its three-chord frame to a bloodcurdling octave leap by Diamond in the last chorus. As an opening nine-minute ballad double-hit, it’s perfection. And the sound is a canyon: all natural, crystal acoustic guitars, ’70s rock-ballad piano, organ and warm bass.
“Captain of a Shipwreck” comes as a breather. It’s good, though – Gordon Lightfoot could have written it. Then comes “Evermore”. If “Oh Mary” and “Hell Yeah” were hills to climb, this is Mount Olympus. It starts off simply. Diamond and his guitar, and then – as so often in his work – he gets into a rhythm on a chord, and a different melody comes in, anthemic yet restrained, and the song builds. And here’s Rubin’s genius. No synthesiser pads or crashing drums, but a warm liquid build-up of piano, bass and then strings. Natural instruments taking the weight and driving the song to three-quarters of the way in, where the orchestra swirls, ready to take on Diamond’s rhythmic melody. Diamond pulls back and then implores, “Why, tell me why, oh why”. This moment, simple words over a gorgeous orchestral wave, is maybe, just maybe, the greatest Neil Diamond moment of all time.
From here, the rest of the album is a sterling retreat from dizzy heights. Rubin is sequencing, though, so there are tricks to play and different sides to show. “Save Me a Saturday Night” and “Delirious Love” are the pop numbers. The first, if done at twice the speed, could be a Monkees hit circa 1966. But Neil’s older now and there’s a warm crack in his voice as he sings:
Save me a Saturday night
Leave me some room at your table
Slip into your heart if I might
Stay just as long as I’m able
It’s retirement-home pop. “Delirious Love” is the closest this record gets to ‘old’ Neil Diamond, and it’s a deliciously hyped-up version of it. The theme of the song seems to be new love as orgasm, or the closest any person can get to explaining it in song.
This is the album’s halfway point and from here the tone becomes darker and more clipped. It is a bold move, sustained by a series of songs about love and close friendships. Diamond, with typical certainty, unflinchingly covers it all. It can get a little gruelling, but relief comes with the arrival of the cute ragtime pop of “We”: “Love is not about you / It’s not about me / It’s about we”. And so ends the album.
Rubin has taken all the bluster and bad heat out of Diamond. He’s done this with production decisions: there are no drums; the backing is minimal but always tasteful (vibes, slide guitar, Billy Preston on organ). Diamond never seems under-accompanied. One could accuse Rubin of stacking the better tracks in the first half of the record, but then he probably thought he had a lot of convincing to do out there in rock-hipster land. And what will the old fans think – the ones who groove to “Sweet Caroline” and “Forever in Blue Jeans”? You know, they might just like it, even if they find it a little mournful.
With Diamond, you always have to bring a bit of belief with you. Nothing is ever done by halves and he can get schmaltzy – his wordplay can rely too heavily on the stock-in-trade. But I love the reach, and the man can write a tune. In rock-speak, for decades ‘Neil’ has meant Neil Young. But with Young on a long holiday from creativity and Diamond suddenly proffering something as strong as this, well, it has to be said: it’s a late changing of the guard. Welcome to the new Neil.
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