Attempting to accomplish for Neil Diamond what he accomplished for Johnny Cash with 1994’s landmark American Recordings, producer Rick Rubin applies a similar aesthetic to 12 Songs, building an album from the ground up and using only Diamond and his guitar for its foundation. When considering the breadth of Rubin’s production experience with everyone from Donovan to Jay-Z, this stripped-bare approach is one that he’s employed only with the utmost discrimination, when he has the highest degree of confidence in the artist and when that approach serves a broader purpose within the artist’s career. What would become a mere gimmick in the hands of a producer with a lesser understanding of how an artist constructs an identity instead serves as an insightful “in” for reexamining that identity or even as a means of altering a career arc.
Pairing with Rubin, then, works to Diamond’s advantage, in that it gives the singer the opportunity to explore and challenge his dwindling relevance with far greater efficacy than did his self-deprecating cameo and subplot in Saving Silverman. Scraping away the velveeta from Diamond’s last run of hit singles (including his Barbra Streisand duet, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and “Hello Again” and “Forever In Blue Jeans”), Rubin foregrounds Diamond’s strengths as a singer-songwriter throughout. Despite the fact that his songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists since the early 1960s (including Cash, who used “Solitary Man” as the subtitle for the third of his American Recordings albums in 2000), horribly dated singles like “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and “America” have made it easy to forget that, as a songwriter, Diamond knows his way around a mean hook. Even when Rubin, serving as a strict editor, pushed Diamond in a more somber, introspective direction than he’d ever sustained for a full album, Diamond still produced a set of songs with memorable, often compelling melodies.
While the songs never disappoint—“Save Me A Saturday Night” is honestly as catchy as anything Fountains of Wayne have ever recorded, and “Captain Of A Shipwreck” hinges on some surprisingly deft turns of phrase—Diamond’s idiosyncratic vocal style, his tendency toward the needlessly theatrical delivery, occasionally comes off as perhaps too affected to take at face value. The enthusiasm he brings to the rousing “Hell Yeah,” for instance, goes over the top, drawing attention to itself such that it can be mistaken for a stunt performance, in a way that Rubin’s production never does.
By focusing so intensely on Diamond, Rubin makes it easy to overlook the first-rate contributions of the backing band he assembled for the project, including guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench of (Tom Petty’s) The Heartbreakers. One noteworthy exception, however, is the SmiLE redux treatment Brian Wilson brings to the reprised “bonus” version of “Delirious Love,” which turns an already upbeat song into a gleeful experiment in joycore pop that never becomes unduly twee. It speaks to how well-written the song is, ultimately, that “Delirious Love” is a standout track in both Wilson’s and Rubin’s reiterations.
And it speaks to how well-written each of the 12 Songs are and to how smartly executed Rubin’s production job is (this album is a full rebound from Weezer’s nearly unlistenable Make Believe) that the album stands as, if not the best of a phenomenally strong year for music, one of the most indisputably interesting pop albums of the year. 12 Songs doesn’t fully parallel American Recordings in that no one ever truly questioned Cash’s legacy, even as he and Rubin undertook to expand on it so greatly. Instead, 12 Songs reestablishes, for the first time in 30 years, Neil Diamond as a relevant figure in pop music. As strong an album as it is, it suggests that the follow-up could be even better.