By Bernard Zuel
TOM JONES: Surrounded By Time (Universal)
Temptation is rife to riff on the incongruity of a Tom Jones album getting serious attention in 2021. And not because the man is 80 (and talking about Viagra on podcasts the way he might once have talked about a nip of whiskey or a slice of Bara Brith), but because, well, it’s Tom Jones.
Big voice, mucho Welsh, cabaret, knickers, destroyer of Prince’s ‘Kiss’, killer of Delilah, a man packing lead in places no one needs to see but yet can’t unsee. Easy riffs, easy gags.
Except that you may not have noticed that Jones has been making some interesting – as in good, not just “well, who’d have thunk he’d do that!?” – albums for a decade now, in the company of producer Ethan Johns.
The kind of records where you first admire the resilience of the voice, which is deeper but not noticeably weaker, and tuned to interpretation not domination. Then the choice of songs, that reflect his life-long deep interest in blues, soul and country, rather than his label’s deep interest in stocks, bonds and bonuses. And finally, the thoughtfulness of the arrangements and performances, which don’t rely on the obvious or the bombastic, but tend to the acoustic and natural.
So, no, a good Tom Jones record isn’t a shock. But a record like this one is still just a little bit wild because Surrounded By Time is all kinds of things, of which acoustic and rootsy is the least of it.
It begins with a song whose Sunday chapel setting is so minimal as to be essentially atmospheric – Bernice Reagon’s ‘I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall’ – while Jones stands before the congregation and sends a message above while throwing an arm around us down here. And there’s a dark twinkling night take on Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman’s ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’, which doesn’t have the hurt of Dusty Springfield’s (my favourite version of this song) but points to a looming wretched end in the way the piano feels isolated in an echoey, fin-de-soir space.
But that’s pretty much it for straight.
‘Pop Star’ finds Jones and Johns refashioning Cat Stevens with a combination of muscular voice stepping out over a dinky rhythm box beat, and early ‘80s synths with late ‘60s garage band organ. Malvina Reynold’s ‘No Hole In My Head’ extends that ‘60s sound into a winding, psych guitar playing over a simplistic organ bash. ‘This Is The Sea’ retools Mike Scott’s fondness for Van Morrison into a sprawling, testifying southern blues spin on The Waterboys. And ‘Samson And Delilah’ (written by Johns, Jones & Jones’ son, Mark Woodwood) feels like gospel blues directed through a ‘90s hip hop lens without ever giving up its roots in the swamplands.
Even Tony Joe White (a moody ‘Ol’ Mother Earth’) and Bob Dylan (‘One More Cup Of Coffee’, played as a potential cut from some all new, co-written by Sergio Leone, Man Of La Mancha) are pushed out more than you’d expect. And the long, long ‘Lazarus Man’, the Terry Callier song which closes the record at just over nine minutes, is kind of like Son Of Riders On The Storm, without the actual storm but plenty of building clouds and sometimes hypnotic Manzarek/Krieger-style interplay in organ and guitar.
Though none of them startle as much – still, even though it was released several months ago and I’ve played it dozens of times since – as the acid-tinged talking blues/social dissection of Todd Snider’s ‘Talking Reality Television Blues’, which somehow merges Kid A-era Radiohead, Lead Belly’s ‘Tupelo’, and a sardonic line in observation you don’t ever think of in the same sentence as Pontypridd’s favourite son.
In keeping with the 21st century Jones, his singing leans into character rather than swagger, even baring some vulnerabilities – in a particular character rather than in that voice – while never wavering from control. When he does swell up towards that boom, as happens in the climax of ‘Lazarus Man’, it’s even more effective.
Impressive. Which is no longer a shock, but still is a quietly pleasing surprise.