BY STEVE PICK
Two years ago, Tom Jones officially moved off the golden oldies circuit with a vibrant, dynamic, and thoroughly engrossing album of gospel songs, Praise & Blame. Jones had never really surrendered to nostalgia, having released new recordings in a wide variety of styles including country, pop, electronic dance, and soul every couple of years since his heyday in the late 60s and early 70s. But, despite an occasional breakthrough such as his 1988 cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” the man had stayed under the radar for a long time until he teamed with producer/engineer/musician/co-writer Ethan Johns (who now has 679 album credits on allmusic.com) to create something that could be career-defining for anybody who hadn’t already defined a career 45 years before it came out. (Go here to read the BLURT interview with Jones.)
So, how to follow that masterpiece up? Jones and Johns teamed up again, combed through the songbooks of such sources as Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Joe Henry, the Low Anthem, and Paul McCartney, not to mention the wealth of traditional songs they had investigated before, and produced a new record, Spirit in the Room, which is absolutely as strong as its predecessor.
Big themes abound on this album. Life. Death. Home. Connection. Spirit. Meaning. Jones chose songs which speak to each other. Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” (from Modern Times) answers Richard Thompson’s plea, “Dimming of the Day,” (sung originally by Linda Thompson on R&L’s Pour Down Like Silver). “When all my will is gone, you can hear me pray / I need you at the dimming of the day” comes just a few cuts before “We live and we die / We know not why / But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.” But not knowing just means you’ve got to figure it out, as Jones sings in Joe Henry’s masterful “All Blues Hail Mary” (from Blood From Stars): “All blues and the grace by God / And I will have to learn the rest.” Perhaps there’s a clue in Paul Simon’s “Love and Blessings” (from his latest, So Beautiful or So What): “Love and blessings / Simple kindness / Ours to hold but not to keep.”
The more traditional material includes Odetta’s “Hit or Miss,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man,” and a couple songs Jones and Johns take credit for despite clearly being from the folk realm, “Traveling Shoes” and “Lone Pilgrim.” “Soul of a Man,” in particular, rings with a trauma rarely associated with this oft-covered gospel fave. You can practically hear Jones wrestling with questions of faith in a world filled with sorrow and pain, and in this version, fueled by stinging guitar from Johns straight out of the Marc Ribot playbook, there doesn’t appear to be any certainty as to an answer.
Jones made his name with the powerhouse giganticism of his voice, something which he still owns, but chooses (wisely) to reign in, releasing little bursts here and there to reveal more about the meaning of his songs. “Dimming of the Day,” for example, is restrained, gentle, searching, and more profoundly moving as we know just how capable he is of blasting through the quiet arrangement. Tom Waits’ “Bad As Me” (title track of Waits’ most recent album), by contrast, is a series of controlled explosions, battering us with profane images spit out with contempt at a volume suitable for cutting through the aggressively rhythmic track. He actually apes Waits while remaining perfectly on pitch and singing with his own style, no small trick. It’s also funny to hear Jones honestly sing “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” in the Leonard Cohen classic “Tower of Song,” a line Cohen could only ever read ironically.
Tom Jones is almost 73 years old, is singing as well as he ever has while refusing to conform to his stereotypes, is artistically and perhaps spiritually searching and restless, and is recording perhaps the finest music of his long career. Spirit in the Room will be a tough act for anybody to beat in 2013.
DOWNLOAD: “Soul of a Man,” “Tower of Song,” “Dimming of the Day,” “Hit or Miss”