It’s crazy to comprehend the Tolkien-esque journey that Thomas Woodward first embarked upon nearly half a century ago. Since leaving his sleepy mining community in South Wales, Woodward, under his adopted superhero alias “TOM JONES”, has literally done and seen it all. Many times over. A working class lad who survived TB before venturing Dick Whittington-fashion in search of derring-do, Jones has now scored hits crossing six decades with UK number ones as far back as 1965 and as recently as 2009. He nuked Vegas and had his own TV show with “God’s Own Wishlist” guests like Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Peter Sellers, Wilson Pickett, and Joni Mitchell. His BFF was Elvis (Elvis!) who would even serenade him in the shower. Jones has dabbled in every musical genre (not Grindcore yet, but there’s time) from soul to musicals to rock to disco to country… and back. He’s even been down the Rave-Up. In his 60s. The kids couldn’t keep up. He’s a figure so mythical he had a hit written about him (1998’s “Ballad of Tom Jones”). Yet somehow he fought through the miasma of leapin’ lady-knickers to become your actual ‘Queen-endorsed’ Knight of the Realm. Check any seminal pop moment, Jones’ll be there somewhere — Zelig-style — mischievously grinning like the Tom Cat who got the cream. He’s literally seen several million faces and rocked them all… and probably shagged most of them, too. So, aged 72, surely all that’s left for the Godfather of Pop to do is maybe kick back and tend his olive grove as he waits for Big G to send the last limo. No?
In 2010 Jones did quit dyeing the barnet and left ‘Da Kidz’ to get on with their donk n’ dubstep shenanigans, but he also released Praise & Blame. A cannon of blues, gospel, and folk covers recorded with Merlin-mojo producer Ethan (“Ryan Adams”) Johns, it became — shock n’ awe stylee — one of Jones’ most celebrated recordings, even if the gimpish VP of Tom’s record company did notoriously inquire whether it was “a sick joke”. In our “Planet of Pop”, Jones had career-wise settled into a respectable but comfy “Cheeky-chappy” cul-de-sac as the ageing housewife’s crumpet of choice (Phwoar! “Sex Bomb”, etc.), but this was damn good. You know, music from the soul, not just the underpants. A birrova triumph all round.
Buoyed on by the praise for, erm, Praise comes Spirit in the Room. Inevitable comparisons will be made to Johnny Cash’s American albums — stripped back, powerfully personal albums, meticulously guided by wunderkind producers and cut by legendary performers in the twilight of their years. If Jones’ pair don’t yet quite catch the heartbreaking glory of the Man in Black’s last encore, they’re not far off. Spirit lassos another stellar setlist of lesser-known campfire chamber songs (plus one original) and for the most part, it’s visceral, rich, jaw-dropping, and at times tearwelling stuff.
As you’d perhaps expect, many of the songs are introspective, soul searching, with mortality on their mind. Redemption songs. Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” proves an inspired, bewitching opener. The gentle, intimate arrangement lets Cohen’s witty n’ wise words sparkle whilst Jones’ golden pipes enhance the malady-melody with stinging pathos. It’s ethereal, aching yet calm, warm. A bruised veteran waiting on that last train: “I see you standing on the other side / I don’t know how the river got so wide.” Serenely spine-chilling, it sets the bar sky high.
But Jones’ is still here to entertain us, and the first half of Spirit is relatively chipper. A sweet version of Fab Macca’s “Come Home” sways a doe-eyed, toe-tapping, country shuffle. The tale of a world-weary King who’s done with his phony crimson cloak n’ golden crown, “I wanna come home,” he pleads. Odetta’s “Hit of Miss” brings more sunshine — think early ’70s Stones at their most countrified and Gram Parson’d. It’s tailor made for dancing in the street, hands in the air, a Disney Bluebird on your shoulder. Ripe with “Aah, fuck ’em” euphoria, “There ain’t nobody like just this! / I gotta be me! / BABY, HIT ON THIS!” Elsewhere, the rockin’, rustic ‘n ragged original “Travellin’ Shoes” holds it own, sounding like it was cut in Sun Studios ’56 before Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” brings some soft, summer’s eve pining. The good times keep on rolling with Paul Simon’s pots ‘n’ pans clatterin’ “Love and Blessings”, although this proves perhaps the weakest link.
Spirit by no means harbors a maudlin gloomfest, yet it’s perversely the darker moments which shine brightest. The raw, gravelly “Soul of a Man” bottles much of Praise‘s true grit. Blind Willie Johnson’s delta blues delivers its heart midnight black, its sky blood red. It’s Jones clad in devil horns, pounding his pitchfork and dialing in from hell while Johns’ crackling six-string licks and burns the flames around him. Scorchio. The most bonkers moment, though — naturally — is Tom Waits’ “Bad As Me”. Utterly batshit loopy. Jones eats it up and spits it out with aplomb, clearly having a ball. Cackling psychotically with rattlesnake tongues and bouncin’gagainst padded walls, it’s the Luciferian Lothario flipping a middle finger as the world burns: “Mother Superior in only a bra? You’re the same kinda bad as me!” Mad, magnificent. A sleazy, Bossa Nova, whisky-and-weed hallucination of “Just Dropped In” almost rivals it on the Gonzo-Meter, Jones’ chewing and slurring the trippy, stoned immaculate imagery with louche Lebowskian swagger.
Things do get dark, though, with the skeletal piano and slow marching funeral drag of “All Blues Hail Mary”: “I won’t be death’s sad trophy now / While I still lie awake,” kicks Jones’ defiantly dragging his shadow up the hill. The remarkable cover of the Low Anthem’s “Charlie Darwin” brings Spirits’ finest highlight, though, a candlelit gospel ballad that teleports your ass into an empty cathedral. One last gasp of breath… the music stops! A choir of angels descend and Jones sees the celestial lights and exclaims “Oh my God, life is cold and formless.” Unforgettable, terrifying. The deluxe version closes with two similarly spooksome soul-stirrers known well to Bob Dylan fans. “Lone Pilgrim” whispers dust bowl acoustics with a “Weep not for me now that I’m gone” deathbed confessional that’ll haunt your heart. Finally, the ghost waltzin’ “When the Deal Goes Down” floats Spirit away: “We live and we die / We know not why / But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.” Again, terrifying. Jones may not be singing his own words, but damn he means it maaan.
Spirit is living proof that Jones has sworn some blood oath to shuffle off his mortal coil kicking, screaming, and rage-a-ragin’ against the dying of the light. Hallelujah and pass the ammunition. If it can’t quite pack the same surprise blindsiding punch of Praise & Blame, it’s now crystal clear that Sir Tom is, almost fifty years along, recording the strongest albums of his career. Evidently the man who has “Done it all” isn’t quite done just yet.