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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Don't call it a comeback

Rick Rubin had it easy producing Johnny Cash's last records. Even after making unremarkable albums for twenty years, he was still The Man in Black, a rock prototype. All Rubin had to do to bring Cash back into the mainstream musical landscape was put him in a room with a guitar and recommend a few songs to cover. Johnny Cash was just that cool.

Neil Diamond is not cool. Over the past several decades he has become something of a joke, appreciated ironically by hipsters and with achingly earnest devotion by middle-aged women. Next to Fat Elvis, he is the definition of extravagance and kitsch. Even his last name is gaudy.

Back in the '60s and early '70s, Diamond was a pop dynamo. After earning his stripes in the Brill Building, a Tin Pan Alley hit-producing studio, he set out on his own career, leading the singer-songwriter movement. As he developed a reputation as a charismatic live performer, his fan base expanded and he began his slow decent into easy listening. Rick Rubin, producer of minimal classics by artists ranging from LL Cool J to the aforementioned Cash, wondered where the spark of Diamond's earlier records had gone. Rubin lobbied him to record an album together, and Diamond agreed.

The result is the acoustic-pop gem "12 Songs." The record kicks off with "Hey Mary," a quiet, gentle love song with a slightly repetitive chorus. It is followed by "Hell Yeah," a song that acknowledges the new direction the record is taking, while noting that this 'return to form' shouldn't detract from his other work.

The record hits its stride with a run of stripped-down vintage Diamond classics. "Save Me a Saturday Night" is a classic pop ballad with hooks to kill. Even if Diamond's soft-spoken delivery over a xylophone melody and a great bass line almost make it a lullaby, it's the catchiest lullaby you'll ever hear.

"Delirious Love," could be the long lost twin of "Sweet Caroline." There's a reason that "Sweet Caroline" will still be played in Fenway for years to come, long after everyone's forgotten about the Dropkick Murphy's annoying "Tessie" - it is a perfect pop song.

"Delirious Love" is a worthy successor, building up slowly, generating giddy suspense before Neil belts out the chorus. A word to music downloaders - you are infinitely better off buying this album from iTunes; not only is the CD copy-protected with software that could potentially harm your computer, but on top of that, the iTunes version comes with a rendition of "Delirious Love" featuring Brian Wilson.

Though the record flows perfectly and moves at a rapid pace, there are a few duds. "Create Me" is slightly self-important and its bravado borders on Andrew Lloyd Webber territory. "We" is a funny little love song, bouncing along to a plodding tuba and honky-tonk piano while Diamond sings about how love isn't about "you or me / love is all about we." It's goofy, hokey and nothing you'll remember.

In the liner notes detailing the album's creation, Diamond says the songs, "are done so simply and truthfully that only the heart of them remained." The album succeeds based on this honesty. It isn't a record trying to convince hipsters that he can be appreciated in earnest; he still is sentimental and even bombastic at times.

This is not, as it could have been, a Rick Rubin pet project, a chance for the producer to show how he could take the lame Diamond and make him cool and edgy. Rubin really did strip away excesses to get at the heart of the material, leaving only Diamond and the essence of 12 songs.

Diamond has had a career spanning thirty years and even if he hasn't been trendy, he has entertained many people. When addressing the question of whether he is happy with his life's work, the answer is an emphatic "hell yeah."

Diamond does not try to recreate the strikingly austere and mortality-obsessed atmosphere of Cash's final records. This is a Neil Diamond record; it is simultaneously catchy, cheesy, somber, and honest. But Cash and Diamond do have some things in common - Cash covered Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" on his third record with Rubin.

Both Cash and Diamond are solitary men in the world of pop music, Cash dressed in black on one side of the spectrum and Diamond in a white jumpsuit on the other. Both stand alone, unafraid to be pariahs and unashamed of their work- wait a minute, maybe Neil Diamond is cool after all.

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