Calling Neil Diamond's Rick Rubin-produced set of stripped-down songs, 12 Songs, his best album in 30 years might be viewed as faint praise. After all, this is the man who channeled his inner Jolson for The Jazz Singer and sang the praises of E.T. in Heartlight.
But the truth is, under the careful and controlling eye of Mr. Rubin, the man once called the Jewish Elvis has returned with a soft, subtle reminder of the song craft and emotional timbre that made him a favorite in the late 1960s and early '70s.
12 Songs marks a real departure for Mr. Diamond. Long a proponent of big production, big sound and big songs, he sings these tunes as intimate and insular, sketches and studies for the bold-stroke pop he usually indulges in. What's interesting is how much better they work when confined to simple guitar arrangements.
The opening track, a lover's lament called Oh Mary, bears all the hallmarks of an overblown Diamond debacle. The chorus bears the repeated phrase "Oh Mary," and obviously was written with backup singers, if not a full choir, in mind. With Mr. Rubin at the helm, however, all that excess has been excised, and the song is sweeter in its starkness. It seems suitable for a lone guitar and a back porch swing instead of an orchestra.
Making Mr. Diamond follow a less-is-more approach is mostly successful, but not completely. An unabashed fan of the dramatic reading, he sometimes overwhelms the simple arrangements with an overly passionate rendition of his songs.
For instance Evermore, a song which by all rights should be the quietest moment on the album, stumbles under the weight of Diamond bombast. The same can be said for the somewhat pretentious Man of God.
Still, for every misstep, there are two songs that remind us why Neil Diamond was able to establish himself and remain an important artist. The subtle swing of I'm On to You allows Mr. Diamond to become a jazz singer, and the blues of What's It Gonna Be use succinct guitar licks as punctuation for Mr. Diamond's world-weary voice. It is a voice, it turns out, that audiences have spent too many years without really hearing.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.