December 12, 2005 12:00 PM

Preparing to kick off a month of concerts culminating in a pre-New Year’s Eve gig in Las Vegas, 64-year-old troubadour Neil Diamond reveals that he’s kept every costume from every tour of his more than four decades in show business. “Probably because no one else would wear them,” jokes the singer, who is known as much for his spangly stage outfits as for hits such as “Sweet Caroline” and “America.” “I used to say I gave them away to homeless rock stars, but they’re actually in a warehouse.”

Diamond did, however, shed the glitz on his latest album: Gone are the usual sweeping instrumentals, and the singer plays lead guitar on a recording for the first time in decades. The result? The stripped-down 12 Songs opened at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart, his best showing since The Jazz Singer in 1981. And he earned gushing reviews even from previously disdainful critics. “They call it a ‘comeback,’ “says Diamond, who has continued to sell out arenas for decades, even when his records weren’t on the charts. “For me, I never thought that I was away.”

With the help of renowned producer Rick Rubin, who similarly orchestrated Johnny Cash’s resurgence in 1994, Diamond locked himself in his Beverly Hills recording studio for marathon sessions. “It was about going inwards,” says Rubin. “He let go of the spectacle and got to the heart of the songwriting, which was always his strength.” In fact, “a lot of these songs come from deep within the psyche,” says the twice-divorced singer, who has been dating Rachel Farley since meeting her at an Australian tour stop 10 years ago. “It’s about the relationships I’ve had with women over my life, for better or for worse.”

The “for worse” would include the times his family life (he has two grown children with each ex-wife and four grandchildren) suffered from the demands of his schedule, which he now regrets. “My kids have forgiven me,” he says. “I missed a birthday. I missed this and that. I’m finally learning now to make adjustments.” Those adjustments have helped his relationship with Farley, whom Diamond says he plans to marry eventually. “It’s going to be an off-the-cuff kind of thing,” he says: ” ‘Come on, honey, let’s get hitched. Just you and me and a witness.’ ”

For all the changes in his life and music, there is one thing Diamond insists will always stay the same: He’ll keep touring. “If you put more than four people in front of me, the ham side of me comes out,” he says. “Retire? To what? Boredom? I’m having fun. This is the most that I could have dreamed my life could ever be. This is what I wanted.”

Chris Strauss. Michael Fleeman in L.A.

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