CD Review: 12 Songs by Neil Diamond

November 27, 2005
Al Barger

It's a bit difficult to know what to make of this new Neil Diamond album. You have to sort out past all kinds of noise. You have to look past his big somewhat cheesy personnae. You have to get past all the hype about Rick Rubin supposedly giving him a Johnny Cash-style comeback makover. Then there's the whole Sony DRM thing.

Overall, this gets a middling decent rating. In fairness, it could never have lived up to the hype around it. It's just Neil Diamond, for heaven's sake. I'm somewhat agnostic on Diamond overall.

I came in pretty much wanting to like the album, but a first listen had me ready to really slag the thing. It's grown on me somewhat on repeated listenings, though. That's a decent sign. There are at least a couple of outstanding songs.

Rick Rubin certainly presents the songs in something like an optimal form. It's somewhat stripped down relative to some of his famously overwrought recordings, but it's not just Neil Diamond solo in his living room like the famous first Johnny Cash American recording, however. Diamond actually plays some guitar on this album though, which he hasn't in a long time. Also, like some later Cash American recordings, Rubin drafted a couple of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench will tend to make any half decent song sound good.

Thing is, a lot of these songs just aren't very good. Specifically, most of these melodies are not memorable. He could sell the cheesy profundity of something like "I Am... I Said" because there was a strong tune under it. A lot of these new tunes are almost more recitatives than real melodies, though.

For example, I'm sympathetic to the big ol' "My Way" type sentiment of "Hell Yeah." It does definitely have some soul. You can hear real emotional investment. Plus, the arrangement sounds quite nice. The tune's just a little flat, though. It's worth hearing, but I don't know how well it'll stand up to a lot of repeat listening. Still, it's growing on me after a half dozen listens. It might creep up and get ya.

You really have to give him "Delirious Love" though. This has to be the closest he's come to hitting that classic "I'm a Believer" vibe in a long time. Those acoustic guitar rhythms make good simple drama. It's catchy and propulsive, and the tune builds nicely. Slide guitar accents it well.

The closing song "We" probably does me the most good of this batch. It actually goes with the whole Cash-treatment idea the least of anything on the record, though. It's not particularly the most emotionally commited thing here, either. This generalized ode to love comes across as something of a borscht belt vaudeville thing, with the tuba and trombone and the sing-song quality of the thing. It's pretty damned catchy, though.

The gentle understatement of "Save Me a Saturday Night" works out decently as well. I've got an urge to put this on a mix CD next to Sam Cooke's classic "Another Saturday Night," which is broadly stylistically and emotionally similar. I fear this new song would sound weak next to such a major standard, but it's pretty good.

Being a little bit generous, "Man of God" works out pretty well. It's not the catchiest tune he ever wrote, but repeated listenings bring this into focus. Also, it's a blessedly restrained expression of faith, not anything like the kind of profound cheese fest I feared. The arrangement helps sell the whole thing, particularly the organ.

The rest of these tunes just aren't cutting it, though. Half a dozen good listens to these other songs still isn't making much impression. You'd have to be pretty determined to talk yourself into making much of any of these other songs.

Still, that's at least a couple of outstanding songs, and two or three others that are good. That's not bad for an old dude. Looking at it in terms of current records by contemporaries, these 12 Songs would go at least head-to-head with Paul McCartney's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

If you're pretty much of a Neil Diamond fan, this will definitely work for you. Even a Bob Wiley loving Neil Diamond agnostic like me has to give him credit. Plus, I notice that the focusing process of writing this up has improved my outlook on the thing.

IMPORTANT NOTE: 12 Songs was the most prominent album caught up in the Sony DRM rootkit scandal. That thing will put some pretty ugly malware on your computer, and you definitely do NOT want any of that nonsense. This album certainly isn't good enough to merit that. You'd be a fool to destroy your computer over a damned Neil Diamond record.

Sony has withdrawn the album. Just this evening as I've been writing this, the Amazon listing has changed to reflect the upcoming re-issue, with no sign of any DRM crap. Still, it's priced for EIGHTEEN frickin' dollars- and several weeks delay expected before they get uncorrupted copies out.

On the other hand, it's already readily available for free download as a Bit Torrent, and probably other P2P routes. I HIGHLY recommend this alternative to taking chances on what kind of nonsense Sony will do to your box.


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