Rick Rubin is not God. He has produced more than a few bad albums in his day. Yes, his early work the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and Slayer is undeniably awesome. But after that, for every Johnny Cash record, there have been plenty of mediocre releases by the Cult and Red Hot Chili Peppers. And Weezer. The magic that he created on Cash’s 1994 American Recordings is not that easy to replicate.
He tried with Donovan in 1996 on Sutras but failed. I might be the world’s biggest Donovan apologist, but that album is just not that good. It’s out of print now, so most people will never even know. The problem was that when Rubin stripped Donovan down to his bare essence, all that was left was a sweet old guy singing boring (but pretty) ballads that didn’t really go anywhere or make you feel anything.
So I was cautiously optimistic when I heard about the collaboration with Neil Diamond. It could be great, but it could just as easily be terrible. Diamond is the guy who wrote and performed some of my all-time favorite songs (“I’m a Believer,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Song Sung Blue”). But those great songs were all written and released at least 25 years ago. What have you done for me lately?
I’ll tell you what he’s done. He’s become a bedazzled entertainer who’s more than happy to sell out arenas across the country and sing to old ladies who worship his tight pants and overflowing chest hair. I’ve seen him in concert, and it was a great show but more than a little creepy to see him singing “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” while wearing that sequined shirt. Looking around and realizing that the youngest girl in the arena had likely “become a woman” during the Nixon administration made me feel a bit better. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a formerly great musician taking that path. It’s the path the Rolling Stones have taken, and there’s clearly a pot of gold at the end of the road. “The best Stones album since Some Girls” has become the lamest, most backhanded compliment ever. But shit, it’s been even longer since the Diamond has released anything that consistently measures up to the stuff he released on MCA during his heyday of 68-72.
So Rubin convinces him to ditch the spangles and get back to his songwriterly old ways. Diamond whines about having to play his own acoustic guitar parts, which he hadn’t done on record since the 60s: “I tried to figure out a way where one of the other guitar players could cover my parts, so I could just worry about singing it.” Rubin forces Diamond to rewrite songs until they’re emotionally honest, and we’ve got a recipe for something pretty great.
And it is. They were going for an intimate sound and they got it. You really feel what they were going for. “Oh Mary” could almost be a Leonard Cohen song with its emotions all hanging out there, exposed and naked and vulnerable. “Evermore” is classic Neil Diamond that builds and builds to a gentle crescendo reminiscent of “Play Me.” And “Hell Yeah” is the new “I Am, I Said,” no shit. It’s that good. When he tells you, “You’re going to be okay / You might get lost / But then you’ll find a way,” you feel that he’s singing right to you, and you really want to believe him. Maybe I am going to be okay.
There is just one bad production decision: the lack of drums. Yeah, yeah, intimacy, we get it. Now let’s rock out a little. Go back and listen to the drums on “Shilo” (the popular MCA version, not the earlier Bang Records version). Those are some of the best sounding drums ever. Do those drums make “Shilo” any less effective? Any less intimate? Would you feel that childhood loneliness of the kid who has to make up an imaginary friend any stronger without the drums? No, you would not. The drums add to the emotional impact. Listen to that awesome fill right before “Held my hand out, and I let her take me / Blind as a child…” Isn’t it awesome? Hell yeah, it is.
So if 12 Songs is a little heavy on intimacy, it’s a little light on the fun, upbeat Neil Diamond numbers that make you grin from ear to ear, and beat on the steering wheel, and speed when you’re driving. And I’m not just talking about “Sweet Caroline,” all you wedding-singer-come-latelies, although that is a fine song (even though Elvis—not Neil—recorded the definitive version). “Delirious Love” is the closest we come on 12 Songs, and the overly busy Brian Wilson remix tacked onto the end of the “Digipack” version comes even closer. The album wouldn’t feel as front-loaded as it does if we had some more fun songs in the second half.
But damn, who would’ve ever thought we’d be getting into this level of nitpickery about a Neil Diamond album released in 2005? It really is a good album, and anyone with a soft spot in their heart for old Neil would definitely enjoy it.
Unfortunately, Sony-BMG treats its customers like dumb criminals, and released the album with a bunch of bullshit copy-protection software that can wreck your computer if you don’t know how to stop it. So sadly, you must not buy this album. It’s time to stop supporting these companies who blatantly try to hurt us the way Sony has. We need to put our money where our mouth is, and stop whining about this stuff if we’re not prepared to act on it. You can probably find a friend who’s willing to share it with you rather than giving your money to a company that treats you this way. Copy-protection software shall not be tolerated; at best it just doesn’t work, and at worst it breaks your computer. Vote with your wallet!