Neil Diamond unveils some of the most stripped-down, heartfelt material of his storied career on "12 Songs," due this week via Columbia. The project was produced by Rick Rubin, who encouraged Diamond

Neil Diamond unveils some of the most stripped-down, heartfelt material of his storied career on "12 Songs," due this week via Columbia. The project was produced by Rick Rubin, who encouraged Diamond to play guitar on one of his own albums for the first time in nearly 30 years.

"It's a tentative feel with him playing guitar, and the songs feel like they are coming from a true and honest place," Rubin says. "Everyone keyed off of what he was doing, and it really makes this like he is conducting the band himself."

While the guitar playing was a challenge for Diamond, he says the lyrics were "the hardest part of this whole project. Each song has its own story, its own emotional content, its own reason for being." Diamond cites "I'm Onto You," which starts out with simple guitar and progresses into jazzy accompaniment with keyboards and horns, as having a special personality. Another track, the ballad "Evermore," focuses on the challenge of knowing when a relationship is over.

"12 Songs" features subtle backing by guitarist Smokey Hormel and Mike Campbell, keyboardists Billy Preston, Benmont Tench and Roger Manning Jr., guitarist/upright bassist Jonny Polonsky and percussionist Lenny Castro.

And while Diamond admits he was reluctant to honor Rubin's request that he move in a less glitzy direction in the studio, he says, "I'd have to say that this is one of my highlights out of the albums that I've done over the years. Rick wanted that from the very beginning -- he wanted this to be one of my best albums, if not the best. I've made about 45 or 50 albums. How can I go in and say this would be the best one? But it was his goal, and surprise, he may have done it."