Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A hip and really hot music producer seeks out an old and established artist — perhaps a bit past his prime — and talks him into working on an album. The point of the collaboration is to emphasize the singer’s craft and the song itself, and so everything is stripped down to the merely essential — acoustic instruments, some organ fills, some simple piano licks and not all that much more. And wouldn’t you know, it works! The star is not resurrected—he is reborn. A new generation hears this old-timer singing new songs and turns him into an icon once again.
You’ve probably heard this before. It’s the story of Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash over the last decade of Cash’s life. The genius of this remarkable collaboration lay with Cash’s deadly authentic warts-and-all singing and with the dead-on choice of songs. Although they made a few odd choices, Rubin and Cash shared an uncanny sense of what kind of material would work for the Man in Black—songs by U2, by Nick Cave, by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, by Neil Diamond. That is, the Neil Diamond of the 1960s, whose “Solitary Man” became the title cut on one of Cash’s last albums. So it is perhaps not all that surprising that Rubin then wanted to work with Diamond himself. Rubin bet he could get past your mother’s Neil — the Jewish Elvis and grandiose king of the comb-over — and recover the songwriter who once wrote “Red, Red Wine,” “Cracklin’ Rosie” and, of course, “I’m a Believer.” No duets with Barbra here.
The album “12 Songs” is the result of this wager. The production is recognizably Rubin: no frills, no synthesizers, nothing that could distract you from the singer and his songs. The singer himself is in good form, still possessed of that fine, if slightly flat, growl of a voice. And the songs are recognizably Diamond (even the ones whose melodies owe a lot to other writers), which is both a good and bad thing.
There are no knock-it-right-out-of-the-park hits on “12 Songs,” no tune that you just can’t get out of your head no matter how hard you try. That said, there are two or three here that will find their way into the Diamond canon. The first of these, a slow ballad, “Oh Mary,” kicks off the album with the nicely understated moodiness of a man getting on in years and yet still deeply, if not desperately, in love. This self-effacement turns positively charming in “Save Me Saturday Night,” with its oddly lilting echoes of the old Righteous Brothers’ classic, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
But let’s be honest; self-effacement was never really Diamond’s strong suit. And so the song they’re all banking on (the one that appears twice on some versions of the album — the second time produced by none other than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys) is the adamantly over-the-top “Delirious Love.” It is pure Diamond in his relentless 4/4 anthemic mode, a straight ride up the scale as he rhymes “serious,” “mysterious” and “delirious” to celebrate “you and me in the heat of delirious love/Makin’ time to the beat of delirious love/… gettin’ sweet on delirious love.”
Unfulfilled passion has always been the stuff of pop music. Songs about fulfillment can get a little tricky, though, because they have to pick their way through all those whopping superlatives and easy clichés. And they don’t always make it to the other side. Take, for instance “We” (complete with its irritatingly bouncy Tin Pan Alley melody): “It’s not about you/And it’s not about me/Love is all about we/Yes, it’s all about we.” Or “Hell Yeah,” which tells us that the singer’s life has been worth it and that our lives will be worth it, too: “This life is here and it’s made for livin’/And love’s a gift that’s made for givin’/You give it all away and have it still/And hell yeah you will.”
Of course, it’s completely unfair to strip the lyrics of their melody and hound them naked through a review. But the sheer self-dramatizing chutzpah of some of these songs is really worth looking at, because it goes some way toward explaining Diamond’s extraordinary success and his enduring creepiness. In the gospel-tinged “Man of God,” the singer tells us that he is, yes, a man of God, even though he never learned how to pray. That doesn’t seem to matter, because he is assured of salvation (“I’ll go up to heaven when I reach the end”). While I don’t want to argue theology with a pop star (let alone a nice Jewish boy who has recorded not one but two Christmas albums), I do wonder about the moment when he explains that he rejoices “Cause when I hear my voice/I believe that it’s His.” It’s one thing to claim that your talent comes from God. It’s another thing to claim it’s God’s own.
A comparison with Johnny Cash — inevitable in the circumstances — is revealing. Cash originally wanted to be a gospel singer, and he did end up recording a number of hymns, devotional numbers and Christian songs. While he hoped to be saved, he never counted on it. His awareness of limitation and sin tempered his assurance of redemption. His longings and fears, just as much as his swagger and his sense of humor, were his trademarks. Rubin made sure we could hear them in the quaver of Cash’s voice on such religious tracks as “Spiritual” or “Wayfaring Stranger” or relentlessly secular ones like “Hurt.” Diamond swaggers, to be sure, and exhibits some sense of base, existential dread (remember “I Am… I Said”?), but the man does not have much of a sense of sin, let alone limitation. He takes his confidence very, very seriously indeed. That is what his audience seems to want and what he thinks he gives them. Ultimately he is selling uplift. You can hear it in his melodies and, for better and for worse, in his lyrics.
So you might have heard it before, but is it really the same story this time around? Can Rick Rubin make Neil Diamond cool? My guess is that once the hype dies down, Diamond’s fans will be the same folks they have been for a good, long while now. While Rubin is producing the music, Diamond is still writing the songs, and he cannot come up with “I’m a Believer” again. No one can. The trick might be to have him record other people’s tunes. Neil Diamond singing the tunes of Nine Inch Nails. Now that might be something.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.