It seems strange to think of it now, but Johnny Cash spent years wandering in the New Nashville wilderness before producer Rick Rubin revived his career with the spare, sepulchral "American Recordings" in 1994.
Rubin outfits his latest restoration project, Neil Diamond, in much the same way on Diamond's new record, "12 Songs," using minimal instrumentation and grizzled, manly songs of woe in search of the same lion-in-winter vibe. But "12 Songs" can't help but feel less weighty than Cash's album did. After all, Diamond is a youthful 64, while Cash, then a younger man, seemed like he could go at any time. And one of the great joys of "American Recordings" was the idea that it righted a great wrong, reuniting Cash with the pared-down, guitars-and-heartache state of nature that God, or at least Sam Phillips, originally intended. But Diamond has a lot less at risk: Far from being an injustice, his sometimes sideways career trajectory from Brill Building hired gun to pop star to an enduring, heavily spangled concert draw always seemed just about right.
The mostly superb, only occasionally dull "12 Songs" expends a great deal of energy shoehorning Diamond into the role of grim elder statesman, tamping down his natural enthusiasm in the bargain. Things get under way with the clunky "Oh Mary," the first, and least, of the disc's many acoustic ballads, but it's all uphill from there. Most of the tracks are autumnal dirges constructed around guitars (played, for the first time in decades, by Diamond himself) and pianos, with occasional unobtrusive strings and almost nonexistent percussion.
It's an atmosphere that calls for somber reflection, but Diamond can't seem to pass up the temptation to Sell It: The great "Hell Yeah," one of those never-complain-never-explain songs that fell out of favor in the early '80s, boasts the disc's only whiz-bang ending; the peppy "Save Me a Saturday Night" feels like a natural heir to the best work from Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" period.
On "12 Songs" moments of great beauty ("Captain of a Shipwreck") coexist alongside moments of Bransonesque cheese ("We"). Diamond sometimes has to dig deeper than he should to locate his inner Johnny Cash (and on the gloomy "Evermore" he seems to have found Vincent Price instead), but the more he loosens up, the better things go. It's telling that "12 Songs" ends with its most outsize and uncharacteristic track, a sprightly, Digipak-only reprise of the song "Delirious Love" with Brian Wilson providing Beach Boy harmonies so familiar they're almost archival.
Whether Diamond will apply Rubin's Formula of Unfussy Gloom to future albums, as Cash did, or hightail it back to Vegas is an open question -- something in the middle would probably be advisable -- but either way, Rubin is the real winner here. Once viewed as a bearded weirdo who hung out with Slayer, now seen as a gravity-conferring Rasputin with a knack for wringing pathos out of the legendary but overproduced, he can probably make anyone sound better, or at least more interesting. Now that he's brought the Jewish Elvis back to basics, he should really think about giving James Taylor a call.