By Matthew Cheadle
Just a few days shy of his 72nd birthday, Sir Tom Jones has released his 38th studio album. Already out in the UK and in the Top Ten, with a US release date just around the corner, “Spirit in the Room” is his first since 2010’s “Praise and Blame”.
With producer Ethan Johns once again at the helm, “Spirit” follows a similar formula to the previous album, with Jones this time around tackling stripped down cover versions of material from songwriters such as Paul McCartney, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.
The album opens up with Cohen’s “Tower of Song”, containing the line “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” Jones’ voice has indeed been a gift for over five decades now, but for so many years has floundered in the choppy waters of collaboration and reinvention, struggling to be relevant. Here he eschews his customary testosterone fuelled bellow for a restrained thoughtfulness more in keeping for an artist in the twilight of his career.
It may seem at first that Jones doesn’t quite belong here, as if his voice is too big for the material, or that at any moment we expect him to start belting it out and shaking his hips. Or is it that after one or two ill-conceived and age inappropriate reinventions in the past, we don’t quite buy what we’re hearing?
The thing is though; Jones has always had the blues in his voice, if not much of his material. He grew up, like so many British artists of the sixties, influenced by black American music, and here as on his previous album, he seems to be finally giving us a taste of what he’s really all about; soul. Not the musical genre, per se, but the emotion, the delivery, the importance of what he’s singing. The songs on “Praise and Blame” were perhaps blacker, bluesier and more old school than on “Spirit”, but the interpretation and the feel is continued. “All Blues Hail Mary”, and “Soul of a Man” are as soulful as anything Sir Tom has recorded. Is it possible that these are the sorts of records Jones always wanted to make?
One thing’s for sure; “Sex Bomb” it ain’t!
The mood is fairly constant throughout, ranging only marginally from the melancholy of McCartney’s “(I want to come) Home”, to the brooding blues of “Soul of a Man”, to the austere gospel of “Charlie Darwin”. All the while Jones’ voice retains its gravel and tone of old but is understated and even fragile and tender in places.
There is, of course, precedent for this kind of late in life artistic reflection. Rod Stewart came over all loungey with his “American Songbook” series, but here Jones and Johns wisely opt for the more rootsy, bare bones approach adopted by Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin on Cash’s interpretations of classic American songs in the years just before his death.
The album is shot through with tasteful, low-key production. Acoustic guitars and pianos are punctuated with sparse percussion and the occasional electric guitar dripping with fifties era tremolo and reverb.
Despite its mellowness, “Spirit” doesn’t ever really feel one paced. The one track where the instrumentation truly livens up is Tom Waits’ “Bad as Me”, coming across like a booze addled snake charmers strain, with its gin-soaked rumba and weaving guitar lines. Jones, obviously enjoying himself, plays with characters within his voice to suit the mood and Waits’ nether world lyrics.
Contrast this with the following song, Richard Thompson’s beautiful “Dimming of the Day”. Accompanied only by an acoustic trio of guitar, bass and drums, Jones’ simple and honest delivery, allows the song ample room to breathe, focusing on the emotional content of the lyrics and melody.
And there it is; the new silver-haired Tom Jones, no longer relying on belting out blustery pop favorites for middle-aged women eager to use their underwear as stage bound projectiles, but a fine singer acting his age by performing ageless material with an understated delivery and motionless hips! This may not be the Tom Jones everybody wants, but it brings a touch of class and dignity to one of the UK’s most treasured musical knights. I wonder if Jagger has heard it yet…?