There are three ways to listen to Neil Diamond. The first way is as a fan, which means you'll love all his stuff, from the early genius of songs like "I'm a Believer" and "Cherry Cherry", to the overblown stadium rock of his 70s period.
The second way is as a lover of kitsch, as someone who thinks it's cool to have Neil lined up on your iPod playlist to impress your hip young friends at a cocktail party. This means you'll love songs like "Cracklin' Rosie", "Sweet Caroline", and dozens more ruined by the pompous production values of the 70s.
And finally, thanks to the imprimatur of Rick Rubin on 12 Songs, you can listen to Neil Diamond as a rehabilitated genius, a great songwriter who took a wrong turn in the middle half of his career and forgot the stripped down craft of his early songs.
Who is Rick Rubin? Rubin is the legendary producer of the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Jay-Z, to name just the few artists that you'd think would make it highly unlikely that you'd find his name associated with an old codger like Neil Diamond. But it's Rubin's work with old codgers like Johnny Cash that is in the spotlight at the moment, given the success of the Cash biopic, Walk the Line.
Rubin produced Cash's last four American Recordings albums, albums that translated Cash for a new generation of fans, as well as remaining faithful to Cash's own unique country style. One of the albums was named Solitary Man, after Cash's incredible cover version of the Neil Diamond song.
One of the things that made those albums great was cover versions, such as Cash's interpretations of songs by contemporary artists like Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave and U2. Unfortunately, there's none of that on Diamond's 12 Songs. So a potential new audience has nothing familiar to help them understand Diamond's style; no recognisable song that will help them to bridge the gap.
This doesn't mean this isn't a good album. Several of the songs are Diamond at his best, with Rubin's understated production allowing the bones of the songs to come through. "Oh Mary", the opening track, is sombre and beautiful.
Other songs, alas, are Diamond at his mawkish worst, like the rollicking Delirious Love. "Pretty soon we were takin' it serious/Me and you underneath a mysterious spell/Nothin' I could do and it suddenly felt like a bolt out of hell", and the particularly distasteful, "Like a shot in the dark she was hot like a spark." Come on Neil, you're 64 - a little old for this kind of stuff.
Of course, Neil Diamond, given his incredible voice, can pretty much sing anything and get away with it. But Rubin's production is, in a sense, unforgiving. He's repositioned Diamond as a troubadour, and many of the songs have a simplicity which makes the words, the personality, stand out. At times - such as the oddly irritating "Man of God" - you'll find this personality disconcerting. But mostly, you'll love it. If you aren't a Diamond fan, this album might strike you as an above-average offering leavened with sparks of brilliance. If you are a fan, though, you're looking at a five star Diamond album here.
- Chris Roper
WHAT OTHER CRITICS SAY
12 Songs may just finally make Neil Diamond hip- Chris Jones for BBC
Not all of Diamond's new songs go awry. Most just go away, their melodies dissipating, their lyrics flimsy even through those tremendous pipes.- Marc Hogan for Pitchforkmedia
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