The thought of Rick Rubin producing Neil Diamond quickens the pulse of those who value Americana. God knows that Diamond, one of the last exponents of Brill Building craftsmanship, fits into the Americana concept. But only God knew how well he would do under Rubin, who in the '90s gave Johnny Cash his last and arguably best lease on life, musically speaking.
Rubin and Diamond work well together. 12 Songs sounds great -- even on the sappy tunes. There are especially creative touches, like the celesta that launches the gorgeous "Save Me a Saturday Night," the organ that cushions "Man of God," and, in the deluxe version, the Brian Wilson overdubs that make the second take of "Delirious Love" so intoxicating.
Rubin has set Diamond's reassuring voice in spare settings that showcase his penchant for drama and ascension. Most songs build predictably; from "Kentucky Woman" on, Diamond has deployed a winning formula, captivating the listener with the contrast between his plaintive style and lush, driving arrangements. Unlike Diamond's earlier work, however, 12 Songs stresses leanness; even "Captain of a Shipwreck," the most "Spanish" tune here, is acoustic, easy, and minimalist. It's also well written.
Other tunes don't fare so well lyrically, including "Hell Yeah," the terminally vacuous "We," and "I'm On to You," a song in which Diamond seems unwilling to act his age. Otherwise, 12 Songs confirms Diamond's position as one of rock's most enduring guilty pleasures.