[24 November 2008]
It’s not unusual for male singing stars of the ‘60s to make comebacks here in the 21st century. Just think of the critical successes by men like Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, and Johnny Cash. What’s most amazing about 68-year-old Tom Jones’ recent album, his first new American release in 15 years, is how similar it sounds to his classic records of the past. While Campbell, Diamond, and Cash had to strip back their sounds to get a more rootsy vibe, Jones gets to do just what he used to do.
They say what’s old becomes new again, and that’s what happened. Jones began his career singing in a style borrowed from American soul singers and utilized the same brass heavy instrumentation as those old Stax artists. (Legend has it when Jones met Otis Redding, the Stax singer told Jones that Redding and other Soul artists tried to imitate him, to which an astonished Jones replied, “But I’ve been copying you!”) Now that retro-Soul from the UK has again become successful in the guise of Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and others, Jones gets to sing in the style that made him famous.
And he does this with gusto. This is clear from the very first track, nay the very first words of the opening song, a cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I’m Alive” that begins with Jones belting out the first two words over a bongo drum beat and a scratchy, funk guitar riff. Jones boldly announces that he’s back and proves it with the dozen cuts that follow, which reveal a soulful balladeer ready to bare his emotions and well-earned scars.
This is evident on his stripped-down version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Hitter”. For more than six and a half minutes, Jones brags of the battles he has won and lost through knuckles and blood. The horns blaring in the background accent the sordid lure of the lucre and the pleasures of the flesh. Jones makes no apology for the pain he’s inflicted for money, in a voice that recalls Redding’s much more than the Boss’s. Jones is not seeking redemption, just rest.
These two songs stand out as covers, but Jones helped write most of the other material on the album, which gives it a certain authenticity and even grace. This is especially true of “The Road”, a ballad written in tribute and apology to his wife Linda. Jones confesses his weaknesses and sins while declaring his love. While it might seem a bit trite to say, “I know I caused you pain / Left you shattered on the ground / but what matters is here and now”, Jones sings those words in a voice that aches with sincerity. What can a satyr who has had thousands of women throw their panties onstage at him say to his mate? Anything less would seem hypocritical.
But don’t worry. Jones hasn’t forgotten how to have a good time. Tunes like the bubbly “In Style and Rhythm” and even the silly “Sugar Daddy” (co written with Bono and the Edge) show the old man still knows how to party. And slow burners like “Never” and “Seen That Face” reveal that the soul man still knows how to let it all hang out.
The album’s biggest disappointment is the title track. “24 Hours” is the story of a man in prison soon to be executed. Jones sings the song with little accompaniment outside of a beating drum. Sure, it shows that Jones’ voice has lost none of its power and punch, but he handled the topic better and with more verve and flair over 40 years ago, on “Green, Green Grass of Home”.
Who knows why Sir Thomas Jones Woodward, the Welsh son of a coal miner, who has an estimated net worth of over $300 million, wanted to enter the recording arena again. Surely he has nothing left to prove at this stage of the game. But this disc suggests we are fortunate that he did. He still can kick butt.