April 22, 2021
(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
Tom Jones: Surrounded By Time review | Alexis Petridiss album of the week
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.
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