NEW YORK - There's security in anonymity, as anonymous as someone can be whose job requires singing in arenas filled with thousands of people.
That explains a little of Neil Diamond's wariness in response to the strong reviews he has received for "12 Songs," his back-to-basics disc produced by musical guru Rick Rubin.
He's happy, to be sure, but a little frightened.
"There's quite a bit of pressure off if you realize that not everybody is listening, just your fans are listening," he said. "In this case, I realized that a lot of other people outside my fan base are listening. Critics are listening for the first time, and that makes it scary."
Relax, Neil. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, Entertainment Weekly an "A." People magazine's Chuck Arnold said, "Let's just put it right out there: You will be blown away by the new Neil Diamond CD."
If such praise seems as unlikely as Paris Hilton clutching an Academy Award, consider that it never would have happened if Diamond hadn't - finally - returned Rubin's phone calls.
"I've always loved his songwriting and I feel like he's one of the great American songwriters," said Rubin, the famed hard rock and hip-hop producer who also guided Johnny Cash's breathtaking final series of discs. "I liked the fact that he never really fit into any category. He didn't fit anywhere - he was rock 'n' roll and not rock 'n' roll. He was a force unto himself."
Rubin had been a fan of the old Diamond, of "Solitary Man" and "Sweet Caroline." That singer had long since disappeared behind the sequins and material that made him a punch line for serious music fans.
It wasn't until three years ago that Diamond, after being prodded by friends in the industry, agreed to a meeting.
Rubin had first called a decade ago.
"I was doing what I wanted to do," Diamond explained. "I was making the records I wanted to make where and when I wanted to do them. I wasn't looking aggressively for someone to come in and give me some new and fresh perspectives on my stuff. I was pretty happy with it and perfectly willing to continue as long as I could on that path."
Their first meetings, at Rubin's house or studio, they were like two teenagers. They sat and listened to music together, talking about what they liked.
Rubin played Diamond some of his old records, things he hadn't heard in years, and they talked about what it was like making them.
"His reputation preceded him," Diamond said. "But man to man, I just liked him a lot."
Diamond started writing songs, supervised by Rubin.
"He brought the chops right from the beginning," Rubin said. "What I pushed for was for him to go beyond, in terms of continuing way beyond where he normally would."
The writing continued until Diamond had between 30 and 40 songs done. Some of his new album's standouts, "Delirious Love" and "Hell Yeah," vindicated Rubin's prodding, since they were among the last things he wrote before recording began.
The similarity to Rubin's work with Cash lies in the album's intimacy. Diamond's voice and acoustic guitar are the centerpieces, with other instrumental embellishments strictly secondary. You're forced to focus on the songs, mostly a 64-year-old man's ruminations on relationships come and gone.
The tone is immediately set by the haunting, hypnotic "Oh Mary," with an untraditional song structure and Diamond repeating the title.
Diamond said he realized that during his career, "the recordings became bigger than the songs, which I came to understand is a backwards way of doing it. The songs have to come first and inspire everything else. If Rick did anything for me, he did that. He brought my focus back to the songs and made me feel comfortable about not worrying about how the recording of that particular song would be."
Diamond's acoustic guitar became a symbol of that journey. He hadn't played guitar on record since the 1960s and, insecure about his abilities, wasn't about to start now. But Rubin insisted upon it.
Because Diamond had to concentrate on the chords he was playing, it actually helped his singing, he said.
"He sang differently when he was playing the guitar," Rubin said. "There was a purity to the vocal that was more natural and less of a performance. He was less able to think about what he was singing and it sounded better."
They fought about it virtually every day in the studio, Diamond said, and he gave in every time.
"Guess what?" Diamond said. "He was right."
Rubin's approach of stripping songs down to their core sounds remarkably simple. In reality, it's like the difference between putting on a Broadway play with two or three characters or participating in a big production - the former is much more difficult, Diamond said.
The one exception here was a version of "Delirious Love" where Brian Wilson was invited to turn it into a Beach Boys-style raveup. "It sounded like a thousand angels coming into this music," Diamond said. "I called him up and said, 'I love this. Would you like me to come over and clean your house or something?'"
He's very pleased with how "12 Songs" (it's actually 13 songs, and 14 recordings) came out and said his longtime fans are, too. They feel vindicated. He's incorporating the new material into an acoustic set on his ongoing concert tour.
Diamond is already planning to work with Rubin on a follow-up. For now he's enjoying the praise and success: "12 Songs" debuted at a personal-best No. 4 on the Billboard album chart.
"It's definitely a good feeling," he said. "I'll take it over the alternative any day."
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