Once upon a time, I was talking to a friend and somehow the topic got onto some music that we dislike.
On his list was Neil Diamond.
Well, being somewhat a fan of Neil Diamond, I engaged him on the topic. He told me about all the songs he didn't like. He thought "Sweet Caroline" was lame and overplayed, he didn't like the 1970s "singer songwriter" stuff, he thought the 1980s stuff was hokey, etc. (Apparently, nothing Neil could do would please this guy.)
I started talking about the Rick Rubin albums of the last couple years, and how maybe he'd dig those. I told him that "12 Songs," especially, was a good disc to give a listen.
I grew up with Neil Diamond music in the house. I remember listening to "Song Sung Blue" and "I Am...I Said" around the house, and my folks went to see him live early in their marriage. I've long considered him a fantastic entertainer, a good songwriter and an enjoyable singer. But there was no single album of his that I considered uniformly excellent ... until "12 Songs."
Rick Rubin took Neil out of the comfortable studio dynamic. The album wasn't relying on others for a plastic sound, or using studio technology and trickery to polish clunkers. And there was nothing faddish about the music. Rubin wanted Neil to get back to the roots, to the guitar and voice, and write songs the way he used to.
Following the events (including the tours) that followed Sept. 11, Neil was exhausted and needed a break. However, shortly into his vacation, songs started to come to him. He would take these fragments to Rubin, who'd make suggestions (sometimes giving appraisals, too, and wouldn't pull punches ... apparently there were songs that Rubin felt weren't good enough and he'd send Neil out to write more stuff).
What developed from Neil's inspiration and the discussions and edits with Rubin was a collection of fantastic music. The lyrics were sometimes wistful, sometimes humorous, sometimes catchy as hell. The music was melodic and very dynamic. The material was engaging. And the band that was constructed around Neil (and only for some of the songs, as many of the tunes here are fairly simple arrangements that don't require more than a couple musicians) really kept the feeling of the songs paramount to the recordings ... there aren't flashy drum fills or guitar solos or soul singers shrieking across the tunes.
What Rubin did for Johnny Cash, he did for Neil Diamond. That doesn't mean this sounds like a Johnny Cash album. It really, really doesn't. But Rubin stripped away the expectations, ignored contemporary tastes and forced the artists to be honest: write good stuff, sing good stuff, play good stuff and make it all sound true. Don't aim for Billboard charts, aim for honesty. The fans will follow. (And they did.)
My friend was skeptical, doubting that Neil would allow anyone to really exert that level of control on the music or sound or style. (I don't feel that Rubin really tries to do that, anyway, but I digress.)
So I directed him to YouTube, to hear Neil Diamond do one of my favorite tracks from the album, "Delirious Love." I didn't tell him that there was a special perk. Surprise guest? Brian Wilson.
Now, before anyone accuses me of liking the track (or the album) solely because Brian guested on it ... The song and the album are just pure delights, and Brian's appearance is frosting on the cake - not the cake itself. Listen to the track. It's such a weird, perfect mixture of 1960s and 1990s sounds, and Neil's voice is the perfect anchor for the track. When you add on Brian Wilson's background vocals, you get a blend that is both harmonious and fun.
As it is, the album was pretty successful. It climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard 200 charts. But there was no breakout song or single, and the album soared mostly on the strengths of television appearances and strong touring.
If it was any other artist than Neil Diamond, "Delirious Love" probably would have been a bigger hit in its own right. But only older audiences seem to give Neil any leeway these days ... More's the pity. I think it could have been a great hit, but I never heard it on radio ... even adult contemporary or any of the 1960s/1970s stations.
The album has a lot of songs like that. I really think "Hell Yeah" is a great song that Neil wrote about himself (OK, "hoot and a holler" is a big codgery, but the tone and point of the song is good). "Oh Mary" has such a lulling, engaging croon to it. "Captain of a Shipwreck" has strong vocals and I really like the lyrics ("Fear no flood in stormy weather / Fear no fire if winds arise / Flesh and blood, I'm yours forever / And forever, it never dies" is a beautiful verse.) And "Save Me a Saturday Night" is pure pop bliss, with a touching backing track and melody. This song deserves to be on a romantic comedy soundtrack (and I'm no fan of Rom-Coms, but it's so dang catchy and fitting).
If you mention Neil Diamond, some people will only think of Will Ferrell's "Saturday Night Live" skits or blue jeans commercials. Others will think of the big 1970s hair. Others will remember the weird costumes. And still others will think of his duet with Barbra Streisand ("You Don't Bring Me Flowers"). Heck, some might even think of how he wrote The Monkees' biggest hit ("I'm a Believer").
But give the man his due. He's a songwriter. An entertainer. A performer. He's an artist in his own right, and has been able to maintain a strong fan base and continues to draw fantastic crowds for his shows.
Neil and Rubin would work together again on the next album, "Home Before Dark," but that disc doesn't hit me in all the right places like "12 Songs" does. It's a good album and probably pleased more classic Diamond fans (it got to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200), but it starts getting a bit more overblown and orchestrated and ... Neilesque. For people looking for the best of contemporary Neil material, pick up "12 Songs." It's solid, through and through.
It's easy to make fun of Neil Diamond, but give his music an honest chance. If you don't like it, that's fine, we all have different tastes. But strip away the prejudice and sit down with this album. You might find a song or two you'll really enjoy.