Thanks to Rick Rubin, “has-been” is now a career stage a recording artist can look forward to. In 1994, the cutting-edge producer-minimogul rescued the recording career of a neglected and increasingly apathetic Johnny Cash.
The pared-to-the-bone sound of their “American Recordings” album was everything Garth Brooks’ mushy middle-of-the-road Nashville wasn’t. A midnight masterpiece, it won a Grammy, captured new, younger rock fans for Mr. Cash — without losing his country base — and created the template for an acclaimed series of four albums.
With the new “12 Songs,” Mr. Rubin tries to do something comparable for Neil Diamond.
Comparable, not the same.
For starters, Mr. Diamond is not a has-been in just the way Mr. Cash was.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Cash had been written off by the music industry. He wasn’t getting country-radio airplay or selling many records. Yet he was still a venerated figure among critics and roots-music cognoscenti.
Mr. Diamond finds himself in the opposite fix. He was written off long ago by the rock press, but he’s still an adult-contemporary chart fixture. He also is the arena-packing Jewish Elvis — the top-grossing touring solo act of the 1990s, according to Billboard.
Indeed, Mr. Diamond is one of those intellectual snob-proof American success stories — like Ronald Reagan in politics or Stephen King in letters — who reveal the ultimate irrelevance of the cultural elite.
“12 Songs” was written entirely by Mr. Diamond, a tunesmith who, before emerging as a recording star in his own right, supplied signature hits for the likes of the Monkees, including “I’m a Believer.”
While the Cash-Rubin albums had a rootsy feel, Mr. Diamond is no vernacular artist — unless by that term we mean an artist who never met a vernacular style he couldn’t fake.
Though he has always leaned on predictable rock and folk chord progressions, early in his recording career he had a knack for varying his rhythmic flavors with ethnic and generic borrowings, including Latin (“Cherry, Cherry”), black gospel (“Thank the Lord for the Night Time”) and even African (on his “Tap Root Manuscript” album of the early 1970s).
Unfortunately, busy arrangements and mindless overproduction homogenized his later output, yielding concoctions as blended and bland as a lettuce smoothie.
On “12 Songs,” Mr. Rubin has stripped off the waxy buildup, exposing, among other things, Mr. Diamond’s burnished, beautifully aged bass-baritone.
Mr. Rubin has fashioned a restrained, largely acoustic musical ambience meant to recapture the innocence of Mr. Diamond’s late 1960s hits for Bang records. While far from stark, the sound is intimate — you hear the occasional wobble in Mr Diamond’s voice, the buzz of a loose guitar string.
In addition to supplying all the vocals on the album, Mr. Diamond plays guitar on every track — the first time he has played on one of his albums since his singer-songwriter heyday. Guitarists Mike Campbell (from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and Smokey Hormel weave gorgeous intertwining acoustic guitar lines around Mr. Diamond’s simple rhythm patterns.
The songs are the straight-from-the-heart musings — interspersed with Nestorean counsel — of an artist who knows his time is dwindling and the stakes of each moment are rising commensurately. The themes are age-appropriate for the most part: loyalty, realism, resilience and faith.
Slow and heavily shadowed by a piano’s mournfully sustained low C and sighing strings, the album opener, “Oh Mary,” serves notice of the late autumnal mood of much of what follows. Lyrically indeterminate, it sounds like an avowal of renewed fidelity to an ideal of uncompromised and uncalculating love — or, perhaps, music.
The self-appraising “Hell Yeah” is Mr. Diamond’s “My Way,” albeit lighter on the self-pity and cocksure individualism. Insightful production dramatizes its emotional arc from quiet introspection to stirring affirmation of a life well-lived. (“He found the life he was after, filled it up with love and laughter, finally got it right and made it fit — hell yeah, he did.”) From its skeletal voice-and-guitar opening, it fills out incrementally before reaching a ringing climax with Mr. Diamond’s showbizzy but still rousing vocal vault up an octave.
“Captain of a Shipwreck” weds an ungainly melody to a trite, laughably extended maritime metaphor, which is then mixed with a mining metaphor. Meant as an expression of deep gratitude to a stalwart friend, the sentiment’s credibility is fatally undercut by the labored metaphors.
Little better is “Evermore.” It’s built around a realistic adult apercu: Severed romantic attachments have an inconvenient way of living on in the mind like phantom limbs. But, oh is this thing overcooked: Monotonous melody, melodramatic lyrics, mannered vocal and timpani-pounding orchestral bombast culminate in the pompous Edgar Allan Poesy of its lyrical keyword, “evermore.” Skip over this track, quoth I.
On “Save Me a Saturday Night,” Mr. Diamond brazenly filches the famous bass break from Phil Spector’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” (What’s Mr. Spector gonna do? Shoot him?) But with its mild expectations for late-inning love (“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”), this unpretentious ditty — charmingly accented by a shape-shifting slurred guitar motif — is a far cry from the romantic desperation of “Lovin’ Feeling.”
With its driving rhythm guitar and onrushing lyrics, the catchy “Delirious Love” evokes the headlong abandon of incipient passion. (An alternate version with guest vocalist Brian Wilson appears on the special edition of the album.)
“I’m on to You” is as wised up as “Delirious” is impulsive (“Baby, I wish you well/But lovin’ you it was hell/Now is the time to let go/Finally know that I’m so on to you”). Set to a jazzy street beat wreathed in smoky electric piano and baritone sax, muted horns and marimbas, this lounge noir kiss-off struts the romantic sang-froid all us guys possess — in our fantasies.
Mr. Diamond has long professed a love for urban gospel, but his doodles in the genre — think “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” — had a way of veering uncomfortably close to parody. On this album’s slow and swaying “Man of God,” he sounds as if he’s in earnest — and has Billy Preston on board for a gospel-soul Hammond organ solo to prove it.
Mr. Diamond tap-dances offstage to an unexpectedly jaunty finale, “We,” a ragtime novelty that might have been confected by Harry Nilsson in his “Eddie’s Father” phase. Its footloose Dixieland horns match the buoyancy of Mr. Diamond’s romantic optimism and generosity.
Are you a pop-music snob who secretly has been craving a new Neil Diamond album you wouldn’t be embarrassed to own? With the flawed but honest and sympathetically produced “12 Songs,” Rick Rubin has given you permission to buy one.
If you’re one of Neil’s devoted legions, you didn’t need Rick Rubin’s permission.