Diamond in the Rough


Let us now praise Rick Rubin, the burly bearded Buddha-man with a Slayer jones and a hard-on for Donovan’s soft underbelly, for he truly is a man for our season.

We live in a time where the once vast continuum of recorded music can be instantaneously traversed with the click of a mouse, affording the great unwashed the kind of helicopter-eye overview that was once the sole privilege of record store clerks, promophiliac critics and music-biz poohbahs like Rubin, who have the fuck-you money to buy everything and the limitless leisure time to actually listen to it all.

Not just listen to it all, but — and this is crucial — listen without prejudice. Having fought for the Beasties’ right to party, having chauffeured rap from the five boroughs to the exurbs like a patient soccer mom, having added “def” to the wigga lexicon of street-smart superlatives, having opened and eventually shuttered one of the most fiercely eclectic record labels in the Western hemisphere, Rubin no longer stands on the shoulders of giants — he walks among them.

Which has made him uniquely qualified to seek out leaning towers of song-people like Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Donovan and point them skyward once again, a penance that almost absolves him of the sin of creating rap-rock. Almost.

Neil Diamond is the latest sagging Metamucil-aged legend to get reconnected with what once made him great by Mr. Weird Beard. For anyone in utero when Diamond became a known quantity, you should know he is/was a gritty, Brooklyn-bred Brill Building organ grinder who scored any number of ’60s transistor-radio classics before becoming a combed-over Romeo in the ’70s, triggering hot flashes of nostalgia in postmenopausal blue-hairs everywhere. Nice work if you can get it. The man himself best summed up his yin and yang in the title of his 1968 album Velvet Gloves and Spit.

The just-out 12 Songs sounds like Rubin handed Diamond a spittoon and told him to take the gloves off. Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, he must have said. As he did with Cash, Rubin drains all the florid pastels out of the arrangements, insisting on classic sepia tones that set off the folk-based austerity of the project.

He also made Diamond play guitar while he sang-something he hasn’t done in the studio in years — ensuring that vocal histrionics couldn’t exceed the needs of the songs. Unlike those celebrated Cash records, which were largely well-chosen cover-song compendiums, Diamond not only sings for his supper, but he writes his own tickets too. And his songs walk like a man and talk like a man — albeit a man in the autumn of his life, raking leaves of grass, taking stock of wild oats sown long ago and holding close to his vest a thinning sheaf of days.

The resulting tunes are nakedly intimate, impeccably arranged and tastefully transposed into the key of low. All songs are sung blue, and if there’s fault to find, it’s that Rubin errs on the side of drabness in the pursuit of gravitas with a capital G.

This doesn’t become apparent until 12 Songs‘ 14th and final song “Delirious Love” (included only on the special Digi-Pak edition), wherein Diamond’s solitary man is paired with Brian Wilson and the former Beach Boy’s surprisingly portable palette of good vibrations: sunbeam harmonies, glee-club handclaps and Santa’s sleigh bells. And just when the album ends, you suddenly wish Rubin would’ve allowed Diamond a couple of sequins and the occasional sip from his beloved cup of schmaltz.