Genres: Art Rock, Blues, Soul
Released: 23.04.21, S-Curve Records
Favourite Tracks: Pop Star, Talking Reality Television Blues
If you liked this, you’ll like: Reload (1999) // Tom Jones, Won’t You Take Me With You (2021) // Daniel Knox
Tom Jones’ fortieth album sees the legendary Welshman championing the sounds and influences that made him the singer he is today – culminating in an encapsulating record.
On the face of it, another covers album by Tom Jones was predictable. Some of his earlier hits were covers; and he already had three other collections of similar ilk under his belt. But none of his previous efforts have been so well unified; obscurer tracks completely reimagined. The best example of this is the complete conversion of Talking Reality Television Blues. Originally a Tom Snider cut set to simple Country acoustic guitars, the witty lyrics were let down by forced delivery and strict genre tropes.
Jones instantly brings a darker energy to the track, stretching out the length to almost triple the original’s runtime. The entire atmosphere is stronger, more powerful, and more befitting of the craftsmanship behind the lyrics, written under Donald Trump’s second term, and taking shots at the Reality TV Star-turned-politician.
This version places menace behind the words, which now drip with attitude and pointedness. The backing track is given space and allowed to dominate at times, a complete departure from the closely entwined instrumental from the original. It’s this complete reimagining of a track with less than a 100,000 views on YouTube that really impresses me – the crate digging, the creativity and nous to make this work – and exceed its more humble origins.
Even contemporaries were not safe from the musical magpie that is Jones, with Cat Stevens’ deep cut Pop Star also stripped of its acoustic heritage and dressed up into a Blues driven bop. Again the guitar is dumped for upbeat piano that pushes the song forward, with a luxurious yet strange soundscape formed by the sitar, Chamberlain and Mellotron. Those three instruments are also used to full effect for the transition into No Hole In My Head, another solid cut that originally belonged to Malvina Reynolds.
The only real miss is I Won’t Lie, originally performed by Michael Kiwanuka. Interestingly, the producer of this record Ethan Johns, worked on an alternative version of this very song with Kiwanuka that was released as a bonus track. There is definitely a noticeable trend evident in the two Johns produced tracks – his version with Kiwanuka is stripped back, softer in both the mix and the vocals, and this continues with Jones.
For me it is such a bizarre decision – the original’s gospel roots and performance from Kiwanuka would have suited Jones down to the ground, and a traditional, boisterous baritone effort would have been distinctly different to the base song. The original’s string arrangement and trombones are crying out for the full Tom Jones experience, and whilst I agree that it might not have fit on this tracklisting, it really feels like a missed opportunity.
Far too subdued to stand out on the album, I do appreciate the Moog synthetiser that breaks down the song half way through, but overall it feels misplaced at best, forgettable at worst.
Overall the entire mood and feel of the album is tight and as one; apart from the aforementioned I Won’t Lie, the tracklisting ebbs and flows naturally before arriving at its conclusion, with Lazarus Man.
Instantly the decision to finish off the album with this long winded, almost plodding ballad is an improvement compared to its placement on its home record, Timepeace. Terry Callier had it far earlier in the track listing, the third entry into a mix of Jazz, R&B and Soul music. Here its position is intentional and well measured; the album as a whole feels more concentrated and concise than the more free spirited Timepeace. That’s not to say this album doesn’t branch out into a variety of sounds and influences. Rather, it takes an almost smash and grab approach – quickly reaching into a different genre, pulling out what it needs and not wasting any time or energy on dragging it out.
This is one of the more faithful recreations on this project in my opinion, with similar husky vocals. Yes, it is adapted to fit in the murky, brooding soundscape of the album as a whole, but save for an extended instrumental near the end of the song, it stays true.
Semantically, it would be very harsh to conflate any stage of Jones’ career with the story of Lazarus – yes, Jones has fallen in and out of the public eye since debuting in the 60s, but it’s hard to really pinpoint the highest peak of his career, or even label the lows as the death knell of his celebrity. However, it must be noted that he hasn’t had a UK number one this century. Interestingly, Reload, his last album to achieve that feat, was similarly bold and stand out in a very monotonous era of his discography – the added elements of features on each track really aiding the quality of that 1999 project.
Whilst this isn’t quite as standout as Reload in terms of genre or sound, this album stands tall of his post 2000 releases – mainly due to its quality. It’s the boldness in terms of songs reimagined – such greats such as Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens having songs turned on their heads – that really sells this project.
It could have been played safer, it could have not worked out as well – but thank god it did.
If Surrounded By Time does claim top spot in the UK this week, as predicted, it will mark a fantastic return to form for Sir Tom.