Remember when Johnny Cash did that Nine Inch Nails cover produced by Rick Rubin and accompanied by that powerful video, and how every hipster coffee shop around now has a Johnny Cash tune playing on its sound system about once every 20 minutes? If you don’t remember, here it is:
Well, Tom Jones is doing the same thing. He has left behind the Las Vegas glitz and the sex-god personna of his past (he parodied himself in Mars Attacks, for god’s sake!) And he is choosing songs that give resonance to his powerful voice. Like a old bottle of Laphroaig that announces itself with a blast of peat smoke against your throat, Tom Jones voice is aged to perfection. And the lyrics he’s delivering add to that agedness, to the gravitas.
Produced by Ethan Johns and covering songs by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Odetta, Paul Simon and McCartney, among others, Spirit in the Room presents Jones stripped down and honest. Just as likely to be accompanied by a single acoustic guitar or a tinkling piano as a full-tilt-boogie band, Jones dives into the blues, gospel, and roots music.
And again, he has the voice to do it: this time, however, one hears more of the Welsh ditch-digger than the nightclub lounge singer. And in my opinion, that’s a vast improvement. He is authentic, he is wise, he is ruminative.
Jones’ cover of Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is every bit as good as Cohen has ever done it. One hears the pain of age, the pain of wisdom.
Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is one of my top ten favorite songs ever (I own recordings by Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, the Corrs, Emmylou Harris, and a wonderful version by the short-lived band, Danko, Fjeld and Anderson) and I was excited to see that Jones included it here and that he does it well.
His voice smooths out Waits’ growl, roughs out Simon’s baritone and turns Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” into a rueful waltz that reminds me of Jagger’s version of “The Long Black Veil” with the Chieftains. And his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of Man” is almost threatening and is as jagged as the guitar that centers it.
I have always felt that Tom Jones was a bit schmaltzy but, to be fair, I never gave him much of a listen. He has always had a powerful voice, but his delivery was always a little more polished than I preferred, every end note seemed elongated, every word seemed to carry the same weight. He always seemed to be overdoing what I saw was essentially an outdated vibrato.
But I was wrong or he has changed or I have changed. Because Spirit in the Room is quite an achievement.
Now, I’ll probably start hearing him every fifteen minutes in the coffee shops I hide in!
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Here is Tom Jones covering Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” the first track on the album: