It’s easy to throw Tom Jones onto the pile of senior-citizen music legends who hook up with a hotshot producer for a rustic, back-to-basics record, shaving off enough schlocky gloss to inspire a new hipster resurgence. This is the Cash-Rubin Principle of the last 15 years or so. Rick Rubin also got his hands on Neil Diamond’s knobs, Jack White resurrected Loretta Lynn, Ryan Adams took on Willie Nelson, Don Was dusted off Kris Kristofferson, T-Bone Burnett helped give Robert Plant his biggest hit in years, etc. Tom Jones has now gotten a similar treatment on the new Praise and Blame, courtesy of Kings of Leon producer Ethan Johns.
Unlike those other legends, however, Tom Jones has, before any attempt at a rugged reinvention, remained biscuit-hot in recent years, especially in the UK, where he has scored four Top Ten singles in the ’00s. Ever since covering Prince’s “Kiss” in 1988, the Welsh belter has been a genuine contender with artists half his age (or younger). 1999’s Reload alone had five Top Ten singles, and Jones took last year’s cover of “Islands in the Stream” all the way to the top of the UK charts. All the while, Jones has continued to live up to his legendary Vegas persona, holding down a hotter-than-ever residency at the MGM Grand.
Sir Tom has let his frizzly hair and goatee go gray in the last couple of years (good move), but at age 70, he is, remarkably, still in prime stud-bucket form, both in the giant blast of his voice and the erotic force of his live performances. In January on stage at the MGM Grand, Jones didn’t just move well for a 70-year-old; he moved well for anyone — still swinging an air-humping gallop like he was the Lone Biker of the Sexual Apocalypse. He had folks pinned to the backs of their rounded plush booths by hitting the high note at the end of “Thunderball”, and by the time he got to “Delilah” the panties were, in a time-honored tradition, flying on stage. (In fact, the 20-something girl with the laminate pass seated beside me was able to tell me Jones’s birthday.)
So, with Jones still kicking dance-floor arse, it might not seem perfectly logical for him to dial it down to a grizzled gospel project like Praise and Blame. At least that’s what Island vice-president David Sharpe thought, who called the record a “sick joke” and demanded that it be recalled before its release. Chalk it up to another ass-headed, foot-shooting, record exec know-nothing. Praise and Blame is a triumph — a searing, immediate, brilliantly sung record that lays waste to these eleven semi-obscure songs of faith. Jones has done stripped-down before, as on the quasi-country hit “Green, Green Grass of Home” back in the ’60s, but he’s never been this raw, and it’s a refreshing sound that fits him like extra-tight trousers.
The record opens with a plaintive reading of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I” (a gem mined from Oh Mercy), and the song’s slow pulse, heavy self-questioning, and Jones’s guttural whisper announce from the get-go that this is a dramatic departure. The molten counterpoint is “Lord Help”, with Jones is full voice, bellowing an invocation for a broken world, backed by a buzzing guitar riff. So goes the record, toggling between shivery meditations, like the stately banjo-backed “Did Trouble Me”, to scrappy gospel-rock rave-ups like “Strange Things”.
The album works due to the visceral, glitz-free crackle of the live-band arrangements, but also to the song choices that explore a range of spiritual yearnings. At times, the record gets decidedly Jesus-y, and if that turns you off, Jones doesn’t sound too sure at times either, often singing from the point of view of a man in search of redemption and scared shitless that it’s never coming. One of the records’s high-water marks comes with a ferocious cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell”, which supposes that “maybe there ain’t no heaven, no burnin’ hell”, and Jones delivers the lines like a howling lost soul.
Deeper in, the record gets to more familiar material, including a watery version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and the ghostly country bristle of “Ain’t No Grave”. Willie Nelson covered the former on this year’s T-Bone Burnett-produced Country Music, and the latter is the title song from this year’s final installment of Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin-produced American series, so a circle of influence seems to exist among these projects. Tom Jones the septuagenarian has amassed a fortune as a Sin City showstopper, but like Willie and Cash, Jones has demonstrated with a new album that it’s never too late in the game to take an inspiring artistic step forward.