There’s Neil Diamond the entertainer, whose gaudy shirts and concert showmanship often rival that of Elvis Presley during his bloated jumpsuit era.
Then there’s Diamond the singer/songwriter, whose discography isn’t without glitz, bombast or even cringe-worthy sentiment (the Barbra Streisand duet “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” anyone?).
But it is restraint, not overkill, that runs throughout Diamond’s 12 Songs (Columbia) — and the quality of the material matches the performances.
Produced by Rick Rubin, 12 Songs finds Diamond pursuing a path similar to the one traveled by Johnny Cash, who teamed with Rubin to make a series of albums that were built around Cash’s voice and acoustic guitar — sometimes with extra instrumentation, other times not.
While the Cash/Rubin discs were heavy on cover songs (one of which happened to be Diamond’s “Solitary Man”), 12 Songs contains nothing but new Diamond-written tunes. The album staggers out of the gate with one of its few average tracks, the too-long and repetitive “Oh Mary,” which exceeds five minutes and features Diamond muttering “Mary” more than 60 times.
From there, the album builds momentum, emotionally, lyrically and instrumentally. Diamond uses nautical imagery to pledge his devotion and companionship in “Captain of a Shipwreck.” On the string-enhanced “Evermore,” about a relationship that’s ended, Diamond wraps his ragged voice around a terrific melody, with organist Billy Preston among the supporting players.
Under different circumstances and with a different producer, Diamond probably would have sped up and thoroughly overcooked “Save Me a Saturday Night,” the chorus of which calls out for pomp and circumstance. But by approaching it in a low-key manner, Diamond comes across as vulnerable and sympathetic as he pleads “Save me a Saturday night/leave me some room at your table/slip into your heart if I might/and stay just as long as I’m able.”
Diamond fans who can’t do without something anthemic and interactive will be delighted with the prime-for-clapping-or-toe-tapping piano bounce that drives “Delirious Love.” The song’s bright guitar chords and aggressive strumming provide the album with its most rocking moment, and a genuine one at that.
12 Songs actually contains 14 tunes. The extra songs are the so-so “Men Are So Easy” and a second version of “Delirious Love,” with Brian Wilson going to town on backing vocals in full-fledged Beach Boys mode.
Often serving as a coach rather than a hands-on technical producer, Rubin has the magic touch when it comes to making effective, uncluttered albums, and 12 Songs is no exception. It’s a success for Rubin as well as Diamond — and the basis of a partnership worth continuing.
— By Chris M. Junior