Simon Marcus Gower
A friend, who claims to be something of a wine aficionado, always tells me that wine improves with age. It apparently “matures and achieves greater flavor.” I have never been entirely convinced of this but in the case of Tom Jones it does seem that time and a bit of nurturing from a good producer is having a very positive effect.
Now, almost incredibly, in his early 70s, Jones seems to be producing better music than ever; or perhaps he is working with better producers. Either way, Jones proves to be a singer who is enjoying a greater maturity and also lasting resonance.
Sure, it has to be admitted that Jones made his name in the 1960s with fairly frivolous pop songs such as “It’s Not Unusual,” “Delilah” and “What’s New Pussycat,” but then experienced something of a resurgence in later years with the titillating yet playful hit songs “Kiss” and “Sex Bomb.” But all of these popular pop songs lacked substance.
“Spirit in the Room” is an album of tracks that have much more substance than ever before.
And this new weight might be the work of producer Ethan Johns. Known for his production work for rockers Ryan Adams and Kings of Leon, Johns teams up with Jones for a second time.
In more ways than one, “Spirit” feels like a follow-up to the duo’s first collaboration, 2010’s “Praise & Blame.”
That album was a deep, soul-searching foray into the genres of blues and gospel, and a couple of songs on “Spirit” show the same influence. But on the whole, the new album has a more up-to-date selection of songs.
It is the song selection on “Spirit” that deserves to be highlighted. The chosen covers and collaborators hit all the right notes. The opening track, “Tower of Song,” was written by Leonard Cohen. Jones also covers Paul McCartney’s “(I Want to) Come Home” and Paul Simon’s “Love and Blessings.”
“(I Want to) Come Home” is a sorrowful song about going home to escape from worldly woes. Jones’s singing on this track is filled with an honest emotion that embodies the spirit of the song.
We are given a similarly heartfelt rendering on “Love and Blessings,” which is reminiscent of a church hymn.
Elsewhere though, Jones can be seen going back to his soul and blues roots. One of the two older covers on the album is of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man.”
Again, there are religious undertones — Blind Willie was after all a singing evangelist — but Jones shows his credentials as a blues singer on this track. “Soul of a Man” feels like it should have been part of the previous album but is a very welcome addition here.
The power of Jones’s voice can be heard on his cover of Tom Waits’s “Bad as Me.” There seems to be a seething anger to the song, but there is a bit too much in the way of theatricals and the delivery is stilted. Ultimately, the tune is not a great listen.
But most of the album is good to listen to, putting Jones’s voice to the fore with minimal instrumental support.
This is perhaps most evident in the melancholy tune “The Dimming of the Day,” a cover of the Richard and Linda Thompson song. With little more than a beating drum and an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, here Jones’s voice is allowed to truly shine.
This is a well-crafted album, but by no means a huge production piece. Instead, it provides song after song, mostly sad in feeling, on which Jones sings with the heart and soul of a skilled veteran performer.
Spirit in the Room