Ever since Quentin Tarantino used Urge Overkill’s cover of ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ in Pulp Fiction, hipsters have thought it’s funny to like Neil Diamond. He’s a punch line, and between the sparkly shirts, bombastic vocal delivery and grandiose, arm-swinging live act, he set up the joke himself.
That’s why his latest album, 12 Songs, is such a moving record — he’s conscious of his maligned persona and he knows he has nothing to lose. The result? Surprisingly vulnerable, restrained songwriting stripped of the pomp and circumstance.
Much of the credit has been given to producer Rick Rubin, the bearded, guru-like co-founder of Def Jam known for his work on Johnny Cash’s haunting American Recordings. Rubin has long championed Diamond as one of the great American songwriters. He even had Cash cover ‘Solitary Man’ on American III. Rubin is crucial to the success of 12 Songs — for one thing, he challenged Diamond to play guitar on the recording for the first time in 30 years. Rubin’s spare arrangements significantly tone down the usual Diamond orchestration, leaving just enough strings, organ and percussion to keep things interesting.
There aren’t any tracks like Cash’s ‘Hurt’ on 12 Songs; Diamond never had Cash’s gravitas. But his biggest strength — his sincerity — carries songs like ‘Hell Yeah’, in which he emotes, “If they ask you when I’m gone/ Did he know he’d be missed?/ Hell yeah he did!” With such hokey sentiment, I’m surprised the song isn’t called ‘Heck Yes!’ Yet somehow it’s endearing enough to work. Also, you should definitely spring for the special edition disc with the alternate version of ‘Delirious Love’. It’s the closest thing to a ‘Sweet Caroline’ on the album, with its driving piano and “bomp-ba-bomp” background vocals by Brian Wilson.
At times 12 Songs can be as uncomfortable to listen to as Wilson’s Smile. Some songs are too schmaltzy (the lyric, “Love is all about ‘we’” comes to mind), and you get the impression he’s trying too hard. But at age 64, he deserves to be taken seriously by a wider audience than the moms and grandmas of America. TODAY!