NEIL DIAMOND laughs when asked how it feels suddenly to be hip again -- thanks this time to an album he has just finished with cutting-edge record producer Rick Rubin, who has worked with such indisputably cool artists as the Beastie Boys, System of a Down and Johnny Cash.
"I'm a songwriter," Diamond says, sitting in a lounge at his office-studio complex in Los Angeles. "I'm not trying to be hip or nonhip. It's nice when a new generation starts paying attention, but there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not sure I even understand it.
"When Quentin Tarantino wanted one of my songs for 'Pulp Fiction,' I turned him down. I wasn't familiar with him, and I thought the scene was too brutal for the song. So what do I know?"
Fortunately, Diamond relented when his music publisher explained that Tarantino was a serious director, and the tender song, "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," proved in the film to be eye-opening for '90s hipsters who had long thought of Diamond as the ultimate Las Vegas lounge act -- someone who sang lush, melodramatic songs, such as "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," in sequined shirts for the AARP crowd.
In truth, Diamond was singing old songs to (mostly) old fans nightly, but not in lounges. He was performing in 20,000-seat arenas, one of the biggest and most consistent draws ever in pop music. The singer-songwriter, however, had lost his touch on records and, without any new songs to embrace, the in-crowd quickly moved on.
Thanks to Rubin, things could be different this time. The new "12 Songs" is the most rewarding album the veteran New Yorker has released since "Beautiful Noise," the 1976 collection he made with another respected rock producer, the Band's Robbie Robertson.
"12 Songs," due in stores Nov. 8, doesn't match the consistent artistry of "Beautiful Noise," but its highlights recapture the intimacy and charm of Diamond's '60s and early '70s period, when he was turning out warm, spirited and catchy songs such as "Solitary Man," "Sweet Caroline" and "Song Sung Blue."
Even if singles from the album don't return Diamond to the Top 10, the best of the tunes, including the zesty "Delirious Love," should connect with his core audience in ways few of his songs have in two decades.
"Hell Yeah" is an uplifting, introspective number in the tradition of one of Diamond's signature hits, "I Am ... I Said." Live, it could become his equivalent of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," a song that tries to get past the sequined shirts and show-biz trimmings of his image.
"We" has the timeless, feel-good quality of a "Forever in Blue Jeans." Even Diamond would admit the key line is corny, but there's also something sweet and disarming about it -- you can picture couples holding each other tight as they sing along: "It's not about you, it's not about me, love is about we."
Despite his exuberance on stage, Diamond is somewhat shy and self-effacing. He avoids the music-business party circuit and rarely does interviews. Even if critics dismiss most of his recent CDs, he works just as hard on his songs as he ever did.
"All the sparkly shirts and the stage trappings -- that's just the performer, the public me," Diamond says on a recent day off from touring. He's wearing a plain, wrinkled shirt. "Songwriting is the hardest and most personal thing I do. When I'm writing, I'll go into the studio at 6 in the morning and stay until after dark, including weekends.
"It was the same with all the albums. Whether you're at a point in your career where everyone seems to be waiting for your next song or at a point where no one out there seems to be paying attention, you still have to give it everything you can."
The Rubin touch
NEIL DIAMOND and Rick Rubin?
It's as odd an all-star pop couple as Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash.
Lots of heads turned a decade ago when the bearded, Zen-like Rubin stepped away from his hard-rock and rap worlds to sit down to work with Cash, who, at age 62, had pretty much been written off by the country music industry.
Though Cash was hampered much of the time by deteriorating health, the pair made a series of acclaimed and warmly personal albums that not only introduced Cash to a new, young audience but won four Grammys in the process -- including one for his version of "Solitary Man." The partnership continued until Cash's death in 2003.
It's easy to think that Rubin turned to Diamond as his next "reclamation" projection, but Rubin, who has also worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jay-Z, winces at the word.
"I'm not trying to follow Johnny at all," Rubin says, sitting in the living room of his Hollywood Hills house. "I grew up listening to Neil's music on the radio, songs like 'Cherry, Cherry,' 'Solitary Man' but also 'Sweet Caroline' and the others."
Rubin first tried to contact Diamond 10 or 12 years ago, and he couldn't get through. Diamond didn't know any more about Rubin at the time than he did about Tarantino. Things were different when Rubin came around again a few years ago.
After a 2002 tour, Diamond planned to take a two-month vacation at his retreat in Colorado, but he found himself writing every day. He knew more about Rubin by then and thought they might make an interesting partnership in the studio.
They met one afternoon at Rubin's house and spent hours talking about everything but music. They had a lot in common. They were both from New York, had both attended NYU and had both moved to Los Angeles after enjoying considerable success in the music business in New York.
They met weekly for months, just talking, before Diamond finally started playing some new songs, accompanying himself on guitar. Even when Rubin later brought in a few musicians to flesh out some arrangements on the songs, he encouraged Diamond to keep playing guitar, something he hadn't done on his records in years.
"I noticed that when he played guitar, he was a lot different singer than the guy I saw on the big stage," Rubin says. "It was less of this big performance. There was more feeling. It's probably as simple as you can't think about how you phrase the vocal if you are also concentrating on guitar."
It was a sore point with Diamond. "We argued about the guitar literally every day," Diamond says, again smiling. "I hadn't played guitar on my records since 'Cherry Cherry' and 'Kentucky Woman.' There were better guitar players around. Let me just concentrate on singing. But ultimately, I realized Rick was right. There was something different about my singing when I played guitar. It let me connect with the song in a more emotional, more personal way."
Diamond and Rubin ended up with almost 30 songs. "It was a new experience for both of us," Diamond says. "Normally, I don't let a producer hear a song until I'm ready to record it. But Rick heard them from the beginning, sometimes when I just had a melody and some dummy lyrics.
"He's a very interesting guy, very diplomatic. He knows songwriting is a very personal process. Every song has a part of you in it, even if it's discarded and thrown away. Rick is sensitive to that. If he doesn't like something, he doesn't just stomp on your dream. He might just say, 'Let's work on this other song. I think it's a little stronger.' "
In the end, Diamond let Rubin pick the songs for the album. "If I had picked them, I might have done it slightly different," Diamond admits, saying he was heartbroken at some that Rubin had passed over. "They'll go on the next album."
A common thread
RUBIN doesn't like to compare Cash and Diamond or any of his other artists, but he sees a similar streak in each of them: a burning artistic drive.
"Neil's tortured by the whole process of writing and recording," Rubin says. "He told me until a record is actually finished, he can't even listen to it with any idea of enjoyment. All he can do is figure out what he can do to change it.
"Two weeks ago, we already had the majority of the tunes mixed, but he went back into the studio and redid six of the vocals."
For his part, Diamond, at 64 and a grandfather of four, can envision a day when he puts the sparkly shirts away and stops touring. But he can't picture not obsessing about his writing.
"I enjoy it as much as ever," he says, lighting a cigar near the end of the interview. "The thing that surprises people is that it doesn't get easier with time because you are, in a sense, comparing every new song to what you've written before. You don't want the same sound or the same melody. You want to find something new."
Rubin agrees. "We didn't try to go back and re-create the music he made years ago," he says. "That's a mistake people often make. Everything in life is moving forward and music has to move too. We weren't interested in Neil Diamond in 1966 or whatever. We were interested in Neil Diamond today."
Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. Contact him, at email@example.com.