You’ve encountered him before, but rarely like this. He’s at the bar, nursing a drink and holding forth in that voice-of-God way. He calls himself a ”lucky old dreamer” but worries he’s ”too old to pretend” there are happy endings. He admits he’s been hurt and lied to, and that he’s ”gotta say it fast” because, as a man in his 60s, he’s feeling more than a little perishable. He’ll listen to your worries, but he’s in need of solace and salvation himself, and he thinks he still may be able to find it with one last great love. He’s a bit of a windbag, but you like him anyway, especially when he hauls out a well-trod idea like ”Be careful how time’s spent, because it’s never gonna last” and makes it sound like anything but a cliché.
That’s the Neil Diamond we hear on 12 Songs, and it’s about time. Although he’s still capable of melancholic magnificence (2001’s ”I Haven’t Played This Song in Years,” a worthy successor to his underrated ’70s ballads), Diamond has spent the last two decades in a purgatory of sparkly shirts, unremarkable Lite FM fodder, and concert crowds who still (groan) interject ”ba-ba-ba!” into ”Sweet Caroline.”
Rick Rubin, his new producer, decided to downsize Diamond’s music. Finally, the songs don’t sound as if they were arranged to fill arenas; the singer’s well- preserved, Corinthian-leather voice and softly strummed chords are the focus. Only once, on the overheated ”Delirious Love,” does Diamond risk embarrassment by getting horny-old-guy frisky. Mostly, Rubin restores a graceful simplicity to the songs, from the bashful seduction ”Save Me a Saturday Night” to the doleful dirge ”Oh Mary,” and ”I’m On to You” is a marvel: a rare snappish post-breakup putdown that sounds as if Diamond were stranded in a jazz cocktail bar.
12 Songs isn’t merely a reprise of Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash. Rubin may have wanted to present his new client as nakedly as he did Cash, but you can almost hear Diamond resisting. Songs that start simply — like ”Hell Yeah” and ”Evermore”— gradually swell with the addition of billowy strings and stately pianos. That tension between Rubin’s desire to pare it down and Diamond’s tendency to amp it up makes for the best musical checks and balances; nothing gets too unplugged or too bombastic. And Chris Martin could learn a thing or two about crafting a virile, unsappy lean-on-me ode from ”Captain of a Shipwreck” and ”What’s It Gonna Be.”
Those expecting another ”Cherry, Cherry” will be disappointed; those days are long gone. Yet 12 Songs sounds more natural — and more honest — than, say, the latest by the Rolling Stones. Granted, it does end with ”We,” a song so corny it could have been a TV theme had television existed in 1925. It seems an odd way to wrap up, but actually, it’s about right — the sound of that guy in the bar meandering out, a hint of a spring in his step and a cautious sense of hope in his head.