In 2012, Tom Jones – one of the elite few who can say they’ve had a drink with Elvis and done an interview on Zoom – covered Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower Of Song’. The Welsh star did such a good job, you could well believe the song was written for him, “born with the gift of a golden voice”.
Jones has been trapped in various towers of song for much of his career: the steamrollering success of his early material, a never-ending seventies Vegas stint, contractually-bound country in the eighties, and in the nineties? Sex bombs and string vests. Say no more.
And if Cohen was born in a suit, Jones was born in a tux – or so you might assume. But over the past decade, producer Ethan Johns has resurrected Jones from casino crooner to serious singer, with a trio of Americana albums. Taking notes from the late-career triumphs of Cohen and Johnny Cash, Johns dropped the bellowing arrangements and honed in on the rhythm and blues potential of Jones’ sixties output, wisely separating his music career from his showbiz TV career in the process.
‘Surrounded by Time’, Jones’ fortieth studio album, and fourth with Johns, continues to centre his baritone gravitas – but wants it darker, with existential electronica. Twelve songs are recast to fit the eighty-year-old’s wide-spanning life, mixing modern arrangements with sixties nods. On emotive opener ‘I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall’, a 1997 song by activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, all falls away to leave Jones’ voice and a few desolate synths – the singer laid bare.
Even the gambolling piano of ‘Samson And Delilah’ feels dark. Sixties psych romp ‘No Hole In My Head’, however, offers a defiant boost by way of an electric sitar. Originally written by Malvina Reynolds, the “fuck you song” – Jones’ words – celebrates a ‘do it your own way’ mantra he’s abided by since being signed in the sixties. Similarly, he turns Cat Stevens’ ‘Pop Star’ from snide industry dig to wide-eyed luck, as if it’s still 1965 and he’s just hit the big time with ‘It’s Not Unusual’: “momma, see me on the TV!”
Todd Snider’s ‘Talking Reality Television Blues’ plunders Jones’ own memory, watching the evolution and degradation of media, from Milton Berle, the moon landing, and MTV to Trump: “reality killed by a reality star”. Inspired by Hank Williams’ speaking alter-ego Luke The Drifter, Jones’ cool spoken-word arrangement is a revelation.
Not every track wins: the Waterboys’ ‘This Is The Sea’ loses some magic, Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘I Won’t Lie’ plods, and there’s a hammy feel to ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’. But as with Cohen’s ‘Tower Of Song’, all of this material could have been written for Jones, even – especially – Bob Dylan’s ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’, to which he lends a long-shadowed western whine.
Penultimate track ‘I’m Growing Old’ was written for Jones, given to him by Bobby Cole back in his Vegas days (when your thirties were apparently considered old). Fifty years on, a radio clip from 1940 – Jones’ birth year – opens the spare piano ballad, as Jones sings, “I’m growing fainter in my talk…”
Jones certainly isn’t in denial about ageing, as ‘I’m Growing Old’ testifies. But his untiring interest in what’s new persists on the inventive ‘Surrounded By Time’, opening with a survival declaration and closing with the epic comeback miracle of ‘Lazarus Man’. Here stands Tom Jones: fresh out of fucks, and raging with delight against the dying of the light.