Are he and Ethan Johns the next Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash?
Tom Jones has, thankfully, never faded away since his sexy, swinging success of the ‘60s, and every decade or so, he has a resurgence.
In 1989, hipsters embraced Jones through his kicky remake of Prince’s “Kiss” with The Art of Noise. Then in 1999, he scored a dance hit with “Sexbomb.”
This latest wave, though somewhat lower profile, started in 2008 with “24 Hours,” his first album of all new material in the U.S. in 15 years. He covered such wildly divergent material as Bruce Springsteen’s “The Hitter,” and “Sugar Daddy” (written by Bono and The Edge), as well as performed a number of his own compositions.
That whet people’s appetites for 2010’s “Praise & Blame,” his first pairing with producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne). Unlike “24 Hours,” which had a little silliness along with depth, “Praise & Blame” aimed to give Jones a certain gravitas afforded folks like Johnny Cash with his Rick Rubin/American Recordings set. And it worked. The collection of gospel covers received wildly enthusiastic reviews. The song reached No. 2 on the U.K. Albums Chart.
So the pump was primed for another set between the sympatico Jones and Johns and they have delivered in a big way with “Spirit in the Room,” out today (23).
While the pair have broadened the parameters —these songs are more about the human spirit and the human condition than religious tunes, though there’s plenty of spirituality here— the guidelines remain the same: let Jones’ voice fully carry the album because, at 72, he still can. His vocals are vital and robust here. Surround him with songs that will be familiar to some and new to others, but none were such big hits (with the possible exception of Mickey Newbury’s ‘60s hit, “Just Dropped in”) that the originals will loom large.
In almost all cases, Johns has opted to give Jones’ voice as little accompaniment as possible because it’s still so rich and supple that it never needs a place to hide. The one place that differs is on The Low Anthem’s gorgeous “Charlie Darwin.” The original features layered gossamer vocals. Instead, Johns adds a choir that gives the song an even more otherworldly feel.
Jones drops all the schmaltz —to be fair, he hasn’t relied on that in a long time— and lays his sins bare, especially on a scarily menacing remake of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man.” He takes Tom Waits’ deliciously devilish “Bad As Me” and turns up the heat as he relishes in finding someone who shares his same demons. Just listen to his cackle.
Conversely, there are songs of great tenderness, including his cover of Bob Dylan's “When The Deal Goes Down, “ rendered as an accordion-and optigan-bolstered waltz so smooth and genteel you could practically ice skate to it.
Not only does Johns have a sure hand as producer, his guitar work here—on slide and electric— adds a Spaghetti Western feel to many of the tracks, giving them a cinematic feel, especially on Joe Henry’s swampy and haunting “All Blues Hail Mary.”
Some artists just get better and better with age and just as Jones has let his naturally gray hair shine through over the last few years instead of dying it black, there seems to be the same kind of authenticity in his songs. He pours every one of his 72 years’ worth of experience and pain and hurt and joy into these songs.