Neither a sea-change nor a slump, this 40th studio LP finds Sir Tom on fine form.
John Aizlewood 2012-05-30
Assuming he has a full head of hair, there comes a time in every man’s life when he must make the decision: to dye or not to dye. Take Tom Jones. In 2009, he was fast approaching 70 and had hair that was even darker than Nick Cave’s.
In fairness such blackness went with the Tom territory. He was a priapic crooner of 40 years standing who had spent his late middle age blathering on about sexbombs like a confused granddad at a wedding reception; he was collaborating in an underrated but nevertheless under-dignified way with Wyclef Jean and covering Arctic Monkeys like a man who, understandably, had never heard of them. That Christmas he stopped dyeing his hair, and everything changed. Not only did he start looking reasonably close to his age, he started acting it too, not least musically.
To suggest such a startling artistic U-turn is a return to Jones’ roots is to miss the point, since he had none to speak of, for his crowd-pleasing, cover-heavy act was hewn in the working men’s clubs of south Wales. No matter: 2010’s super-spartan but super-warm Praise & Blame reinvented him as a God-fearing, fundamentally flawed man coming to terms with his mortality. For the first time over a whole album, Jones proved himself capable of tingling spines; at long last that ‘The Voice’ sobriquet made sense and, best of all, he had never sounded quite so comfortable in his own skin.
Although the Tom Waits cover, Bad as Me, has a Middle Eastern undertow, Spirit in the Room isn’t quite the moment for another sea-change any more than it’s time for Jones to deviate from being grey and proud. Once again produced by Ethan Johns, if anything it’s even more pared down, more emotionally adult and more rueful. (And when the heavenly singers of Stile Antico appear on the closing cover of The Low Anthem’s Charlie Darwin, it’s a shock, albeit a delightful one.)
Amongst the covers, Jones nails the dissatisfied despair of Paul McCartney’s rarely heralded (I Want to) Come Home as naturally as he wraps himself around Blind Willie Johnson’s Soul of a Man, but there’s a pair of Johns/Jones originals, where he again paints himself as a soul beyond earthly redemption. It may be time to tinker next time around, but right now he’s redeemed an awful lot of himself.