By far Jones’s best album in two decades or more and it isn't made up of hymns. Rating: * * * *
Tom Jones’s latest album has become mired in a bizarre controversy. In a leaked memo, the vice-president at Island lambasted his subordinates for allowing their new £1.5 million signing to make an album of “hymns”. He even wondered if the whole project is “a sick joke”. In desperate times for the record business, this disclosure only fuels the suspicion that the top brass at certain major record companies simply have no idea about music: Praise & Blame is, by far, Jones’s best album in two decades or more, and, needless to say, it isn’t made up of hymns either. Recently turned 70, Jones’s tenor remains as boundlessly capable as when he first boomed into earshot with It’s Not Unusual. Yet, ever since he was made over for the 1980s pop market with his bump-and-grind take on Prince’s Kiss, even the most delirious knicker-flinger would have to concede that Sir Tom’s “mature” work has been anything but mature. For the past 20 years, he has largely made lightweight, trivial pop, ill-befitting of a voice so omnipotent. Jones was signed by Island, it transpires, with the explicit aim of pointing him towards some more substantial material. To that end, the singer was matched up with a rootsy producer, Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Laura Marling etc), and together they selected a pool of songs that drew strongly on themes of faith, temptation and redemption. These were recorded live, with a stripped-down backing combo, including occasional guests such as Stax’s Booker T Jones. Praise & Blame is, accordingly, drenched in blues and southern soul, and yet it sounds way more current than Jones’s hi-tech latter-day flops. It opens with What Good Am I?, a self-questioning meditation written by Bob Dylan. Much of what follows goes further back, to the root of country and rock & roll in gospel music, from songwriters such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. On Burning Hell, by the Mississippi bluesman John Lee Hooker, a terrified sinner prays for forgiveness. To an insistent White Stripes-ish riff, Jones hollers like a man possessed – believe it or not, cuddly old disco-dancing Tom really can make your blood freeze. Jones himself calls Praise & Blame his Johnny Cash record, referring to the country singer’s twilight recordings. His own achingly fatigued wisdom on If I Give My Soul certainly justifies the comparison. With its loose, spontaneous sound, and the all-pervasive sense of artistic rebirth, the album even has something of his old pal Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback about it. Either way, it’s a revelation.