To the CD player (I'm waaay too cool for an iPod) for a fading star's late-career stripped-down album. No, not Johnny Cash (I'm getting American III for Christmas so I'll do that then) but Neil Diamond's 12 Songs.
It's not wrong to start with Cash, tho'. Rick Rubin, the producer who reduced Cash to a guitar and a mike ploughing through the best of the twentieth century in his American albums, has done the same for Diamond. The effect is just as electrifying now as then.
If all you know of Diamond is the cheerful strumming of Sweet Caroline or I'm a Believer, you'll be blown away. The entire album is a bittersweet autobiography of a lover, from puppy adoration (Save Me A Saturday Night) to full-throttle passion (Delirious Love) to Every Breath You Take-style vengeance (I'm On To You).
The album (of all-new material) is so personal, and the simplicity of the orchestration (one man and his guitar) only reinforces this. The sequence of the songs can be seen as a psychological journey, starting with the simple fidelity of Oh Mary and moving through memories of love accepted and love spurned to a final reconciliation with love in We. The good humour of We is underpinned by the tuba thumping away.
What adds to the success is Diamond's voice. It's losing its sweetness and it's a strech for some of the higher notes, all of which add to the pathos. When he shouts his affirmation of his life at the climax of Hell Yeah, it's a raw and triumphant moment combined with a Prospero-like acceptance of the end. It's the summation of a career and of a life.
There are two added tracks on my copy, one of which is a version of Delirious Love with Brian Wilson in full Beach Boys-mode. Once you hear it, with the jingling bells and Good Vibrations rising in the background, the first version, though fairly rocking, must be put beneath this full-bodied take.
If Save Me A Saturday Night is a little twee and Man of God a rather conventional gospel song, these are tiny chips in an otherwise towering monument.
Yes, it's very similar to late Cash, but that's no bad thing - to have two first class singers recording in a mature, pared-down style is both philosophically and musically to be welcomed. That Diamond wrote all his songs only makes it better.