Tom Jones: Surrounded By Time review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(EMI)
Playing the hits on stage allows Jones free rein in the studio – spoken word, doomy electronics and 60s psych are threaded through songs by Dylan, Michael Kiwanuka and more

For an artist whose public image has been set in stone for half a century – who’s clearly going to spend the rest of his life being asked about ladies throwing their knickers at him, his working-class Welsh background and what Elvis was really like – Tom Jones has proved surprisingly chameleonic as an artist in recent decades. Since rebooting his career in 1988, by bellowing Prince’s Kiss over a backing by the Art of Noise, he’s variously been a pop-house vocalist for producers Mousse T and Chicane, a Teddy Riley-produced modern R&B singer, a foil for Jack White’s distorted blues rock, a ZTT-signed artist offering a Trevor Horn-produced cover of an obscure early 90s experimental hip-hop track, a purveyor of jazz, blues and rock’n’roll standards with Jools Holland and his orchestra, and the greatest beneficiary of the Britpop era’s interest in easy listening this side of Swing When You’re Winning-era Robbie Williams, knocking out covers of Sunny Afternoon and Portishead’s All Mine in the company of Space and the Divine Comedy on 2000’s four-million-selling Reload.

More recently, producer Ethan Johns has had him singing gospel (Praise and Blame), acoustic folk (Spirit in the Room) and rough-hewn country and R&B (Long Lost Suitcase). Clearly buoyed by a positive critical reception – uniquely among his latterday associates, Johns appears interested in Jones as an artist rather than a powerful vocalist with a beloved kitschy image – the pair’s latest collaboration offers a more eclectic mix still. There are points where Surrounded By Time’s contents seem roughly equivalent to the stuff on its predecessors: a sparse but lovely version of Michael Kiwanuka’s I Won’t Lie, backed by fingerpicked guitar; a raw, live-sounding acoustic take on Bob Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee. And there are moments where it ventures into uncharted territory: doomy electronics, spoken word, a bit of autumnal ruminating on the passing of time in the manner of a late-period Johnny Cash album, bolstered by samples of news broadcasts from 1940, the year Jones was born.

Tom Jones: Surrounded By Time album cover.
Tom Jones: Surrounded By Time album cover. Photograph: PR handout

At its most enjoyable, Surrounded By Time imagines a kind of alternative history for Jones. “I hate that new hit of his – it’s sentimental crap,” kvetched the Who’s Pete Townshend as The Green, Green Grass of Home spent seven weeks at No 1 in 1966. What if, then, the housewives’ choice had taken heed of what else was happening in the Top 40, donned a Nehru jacket and beads, and signed the Beatles’ legalise pot advert in the Times? The sitar-laden stomp of No Hole In My Head is really fun, and the nine-minute closer Lazarus Man, complete with psychedelic guitar solo, effectively conjures up some of the sinister, humid atmosphere of early Dr John. This Is the Sea, however, is the best track here. It looks past the booming reverb and bombast of the Waterboys’ original and turns the song into something the Band might have recorded in 1969: an old hit single from a parallel universe, where those clips of Tom Jones duetting with Janis Joplin and belting it out with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on American TV aren’t representative of a cultural clash, but the natural order of things.

The other experiments are a mixed bag. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall works, set to creepy electronics, the starkness of the music pointing up the undimmed power of Jones’s voice, but The Windmills of Your Mind doesn’t. In its original incarnation, the song’s eeriness stemmed from the way the oddness of the lyrics – “like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own” – rubbed against the sweetness of the chanson-like melody and Noel Harrison’s artless delivery. Decking it out with feedback, electronic drones and doomy orchestration and amping-up the vocal emoting amounts to laying it on too thick. The two spoken-word tracks are initially attention-grabbing and key into Jones’s past – hits including Detroit City and The Green, Green Grass of Home came with spoken-word passages – but the novelty value wears off long before the songs end, leaving you wondering not about their lyrical topics (reality TV and ecology respectively), but who on earth buys a Tom Jones album to hear him talk rather than sing. Endlessly adaptable Jones may be, but here’s something he can’t successfully do.

That said, even the album’s missteps come with something oddly pleasing attached: the sense of an artist in his 80s who’s canny enough to know that his bread and butter comes from belting out It’s Not Unusual at Hampton Court Palace and the Rhyl Events Arena, and smart enough to realise that means he can do whatever he wants in the studio. If it doesn’t always work, no harm done: the knicker-throwers will still turn out, as long as he deigns to sing Delilah when they do.

What Alexis listened to this week

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Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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