“It’s a combination of his brilliance as a showman and a songwriter,” Bennett said. “You actually forget how many great songs he has until you go to one of his shows, and it’s just one after the other — two hours of all these hits. ‘Oh, man. I forgot about that one!’ It’s like the soundtrack of your life.”
One of Diamond’s chief defenses against those who would mock him has been a well-honed ability to laugh at himself. When Will Ferrell took to parodying him on “Saturday Night Live” in 2002, Diamond showed up in a cameo alongside Ferrell in the season finale. He once surprised one of the several “Neil Diamond tribute” acts, the L.A.-based Super Diamond, by sitting in on “I Am . . . I Said” — then joking, “I guess it should have been ‘We Are . . . We Said.’ ” In the forgettable 2001 teenage comedy “Saving Silverman,” about a floundering Diamond tribute band, Diamond makes a lengthy cameo and leads the cast in a resounding “Holly Holy” at the end.
But anyone who has ever known the wretched task of trying to craft a perfect three-minute pop song could understand the genius of Diamond, who has done that as well as anyone in the past half a century. And one of those people who understood was acclaimed producer Rick Rubin, who made some of the best records ever released by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys, among others, and who, in the 1990s and 2000s, produced the critically lauded “American Recordings” series for Johnny Cash, which revived Cash’s career.
“I love so many of his songs, and always felt he stood alone as an artist,” Rubin said of Diamond in an e-mail interview. “He has always done what he wanted and followed his inner voice, so he never fit easily into any genres or categories.”
Rubin approached Diamond about working together, and after agreeing, Diamond holed up for nearly a year and a half, he says, “writing and writing and writing and writing.”
The two resulting albums, 12 Songs” in 2005 and “Home Before Dark” in 2008, are both stripped-down and spare, much like Rubin’s Cash albums, in a way that emphasizes Diamond’s songwriting and voice. Despite Diamond’s initial objections, Rubin insisted that he play guitar and sing simultaneously in the studio, which gives the records a coffeehouse intimacy that stands in stark contrast to the bombast and syrup of his mid-career output.
“They’re two good albums,” Diamond says. “They have some of the best songs I have written.”