Tom Jones' Spirit in the Room is a beautiful album of great songs performed with taste and sung with tender resonance, writes Neil McCormick.
“It’s all about the voice,” is Tom Jones’s repeated catchphrase as a judge on BBC’s singing competition, The Voice. But is it really? At 71, the former Welsh pub singer has enjoyed an extraordinary run for an interpretative pop vocalist. He’s always been strong on lung-busting volume, gritty tone and fluid delivery, but it is a more unclassifiable quality of earthy, masculine drive that made him iconic, a raw sexuality connecting his easy listening oeuvre to the swinging grooves of the Sixties and beyond. With advancing years, you might imagine that strutting appetite to be waning but Jones has skilfully negotiated the late phase of his career with a shift towards autumnal rumination and pathos. Usually a singer for whom bigger is better, on 2010’s superb Praise & Blame Jones tackled spiritual blues and gospel with a stripped back, roots-rock flavour. For the follow up, producer Ethan Johns adapts the formula to understated arrangements of contemporary and classic Americana. The obvious reference point is Johnny Cash’s late-period recordings with Rick Rubin. The same tone of weary, hard-won wisdom runs through Spirit in the Room, yet Jones’s connection to the material is sometimes tenuous. As impeccable as the song choices are, from obscure Americana artists like Joe Henry (All Blues Hail Mary) and the Low Anthem (Charlie Darwin), I’m willing to bet they come from his producer’s record collection, rather than his own.
Jones’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song misses layers of irony, humour and humility, stretching Cohen’s bone dry “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” into a defiant boast. Adding a superfluous “babe” to the declaration “there’s a mighty judgment coming” has the unfortunate effect of conjuring images of Jones being eternally pelted by women’s knickers. I am being harsh, though. This is a beautiful album of great songs performed with taste and sung with tender resonance by one of the most distinctive voices of British popular music. Straining at his producer’s leash, Jones seems to most enjoy himself hamming it up on Tom Waits’s Bad as Me and Vera Hall Ward’s Travelling Shoes. When Jones really connects with the material the results have undeniable emotional heft, with an elegiac delivery of Paul McCartney’s (I Want to) Come Home and a brooding interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s dark blues Soul of a Man. The album has to be judged a late-period triumph, even if I am not entirely convinced The Voice’s avuncular judge is quite as deep as the material demands.
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