By DAN MACINTOSH
If your impression of Tom Jones is still that of a hip-swinging Welsh sex symbol, winking and asking, “What’s New Pussycat?” then you probably haven’t checked in on this unique performer for about two decades or so.
Since about the late ’90s, Jones has been transforming himself into an interpreter of roots/gospel music and adventurous modern songwriters. His new Surrounded By Time continues this artistic metamorphosis with an album of 12 thought-provoking performances.
As you might expect, some of these new takes don’t match the originals. Then again, a few actually surpass initial versions. Jones is a powerful vocalist and sings The Waterboys’ “This is the Sea” expertly. However, Jones’ aged experience is not nearly as convincing as Mike Scott’s youthful passion.
Then again, Jones’ spooky, spoken word take on Todd Snider’s “Talking Reality Television Blues” is far more effective than originator’s actual talking blues-styled recording. Jones’ recent dramatic take gives the lyric so much more intensity. Snider’s words detail the history of television and its impact upon the culture. Doing so, the song traces the medium’s beginnings with figures like Milton Berle, and then concludes in the reality era. It ends with a former reality star (Donald Trump) that became president.
“The Windmills Of Your Mind” dates to the late ’60s. Somehow, Jones makes this inquiry into the workings of the human mind sound fresh and new when he performs it. Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam’s “Pop Star,” foretold that conflicted artist’s misgivings with fame. Jones reinvents the song into a clunky, mechanical pop music workout. It’s miles away from what it was in 1970 but is no less effective.
To create this collection of sometimes unusual-sounding songs, Jones turned to producer Ethan Johns, who has previously worked with artists like Kings of Leon and Crowded House. Some of these songs simply wouldn’t have fit Jones’ repertoire back in the ’60s. For instance, the confessional “I’m Growing Old,” which honestly addresses aging, wouldn’t have rung true from a singer surrounded by, say, mini-skirted go-go dancers. The album closes with the synth-y “Lazarus Man.” This one once again finds Jones giving a song the spoken word treatment in places. Who knew this full-bodied vocalist would one day develop into such a wise voice of experience? But develop that way, he has.
Tom Jones is not a songwriter, and his career began at a time when many artists relied upon outside writers to provide their recording material. Jones likely realizes he’s passed the pop star phase of his career. He won’t be competing with the likes of Harry Styles. The material on Surrounded by Time suggests Jones is mainly out to please himself, and then hope listeners will follow him on his experimental artistic journey. This is a fruitful musical travelogue, which matches an undeniably great singer with unquestionably strong songs. In short, Tom Jones has surrounded himself with plenty of good stuff.