Gary Raymond reviews Sir Tom Jones’ fortieth studio album, Surrounded By Time, which sees an explorative collaboration with producer Ethan Johns expose Jones’ reflective side.
Tom Jones is quietly having a twilight renaissance, in the studio at least, one that is throwing up more than a few creative surprises, and one that seeks to add balance to his lucrative dalliances with the vapid mainstream. He’s now an octogenarian, and something of a national treasure for Wales and the UK, a grandaddy of white British rhythm and blues singing, a solid avuncular presence as judge on Saturday night wailathon, The Voice. But what do all those things add up to for a man whose waters actually run pretty deep beneath a stock still broader public persona. Sir Tom seems to be in the enviable position of sitting at the apex of a three-pronged career; one where he can please his fans by trotting out the well-worn hits at gigs (yes, Jones is still touring and has recently announced live dates for 2021), where he can enjoy himself in the elder statesman role on Saturday prime time television, and where he can experiment and express himself on albums. And make no mistake, Jones has never been more experimental.
This latest album, Surrounded By Time, is dominated by a sharp and lush electronic sound fashioned by producer Ethan Johns. Johns is to Jones what Rick Rubin was to Johnny Cash: the director of affairs, the Svengali not to a promising starlet, but a giant made of leather and stone. Johns is a canny operator, and he knows how to get to the essence of Jones, and you have to admit, even when something doesn’t work it grabs your attention. It’s all worth listening to. This is not the forgettable lounge singing of the seventies and eighties, the decades of the low key fillers designed to keep Tom in the charts for his Vegas stints, so they’re not albums designed to augment or cash in on his Voice profile. The Johns albums (Spirit in the Room from 2012, Long Lost Suitcase from 2015, and this new one), collaborations really, have all the exploratory energy of kids trying stuff out with a four track in the garage. Johns both recognises the elemental force of Jones’ voice, the thing that made the valleys’ boy the hot ticket in LA in the late sixties when he fronted his award-winning hit prime time show with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, and Sammy Davis Jnr queuing up to perform with him.
Surrounded By Time differs from the previous two Johns collaborations in that this feels decidedly elegiac, an artist looking at their own mortality and digging out at a fresh creative seam. It’s all the rage now. Rock n Roll used to be for the kids, but those kids, the original ones, are a dying breed, and it’s thanks to Rick Rubin, allowing Cash to contemplate his own looming death by covering songs like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and, most memorably, Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’. Bowie made the album masterpiece on the subject with Blackstar. Since then, even Shirley Bassey has been surprisingly reflective. Sir Tom doesn’t have the avant garde pretensions to do anything as profound as what Bowie did, but he has the grit and passion to do something more interesting than Bassey.
And so, on Surrounded By Time there are traces of Jones’ first love, gospel and rhythm and blues, such as on the opening track ‘I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall’. The difference is that Johns has laid it over a synthesised backdrop. Less sweaty RnB club, and more ambient laboratory. It works. Sir Tom’s voice, imperious, unchangeable as the seasons, is never diminished by the production, even if it’s never truly enhanced by it either.
There are tonal missteps, but they add to the feeling of caution to the wind. Spoken word rarely works and ‘Talking Reality Television Blues’ doesn’t manage to be an exception to that rule. In fact, it’s such a colossal duffer it threatens the album. But it’s an honest mistake. Sir Tom trying to address his own career turn on The Voice, but, to be honest, we don’t need reminding of it.
Likewise, Jones has never managed to match his talents with the music of Bob Dylan, who he has covered countless times in his career without any success. Here, ‘One More Cup of Coffee’, from Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, lacks all the desert dryness of the original, as it does the mystery and the myth of the Texican old West Dylan was playing with when he wrote it. It just plods along, often also doing a disservice to the Latinate melody that sends Dylan’s vocal so deliciously reedy.
It’s also worth taking a line to stick the boot into Jones’ grating Noel Harrison cover. The world does not need another version of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’, if it ever needed the original in the first place. And Jones’ self-penned ‘I’m Growing Old’ is so morose one listen may well be enough for you.
It’s all the more frustrating, then, to hear that Jones is in his element on the soulful numbers. Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘I Won’t Lie’ is a beautifully understated ballad, and ‘This is the Sea’ is a searching winding Irish soul record that draws something special from the Waterboys’ original. But the reason why I would recommend Surrounded By Time is the cover of Terry Callier’s ‘Lazarus Man’. It may at first feel a clumsy nod to Bowie’s ‘Lazarus’ on Blackstar, but in the execution, Jones has found a subtle, pining quality to his voice I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before. It’s a triumphant “owning” of one of the greatest songs ever written.
Surrounded By Time by Tom Jones is available now for purchase and download.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster, and wrote and presented the BBC Radio Wales documentary How Tom Jones Conquered America in 2020.
Shirley Bassey has released her final album, seven decades after her debut. I Owe It All To You has all the trademark flourishes you might expect from the queen of the divas, but, as Gary Raymond explains here, this is an album that sits well with the great goodbye albums of recent years.