Tom Jones has been leading a bit of a double life this past decade. The Vegas years haven’t been forgotten and he’s still Mr Light Entertainment, permatanned and impeccably groomed as a long-term judge on TV talent show The Voice. In promoting this new album he’s been a reliable producer of showbiz anecdotes, telling tales of chats with Prince Philip, farting on live television and the value of Viagra at 80.
Which makes it all the more unusual that the music he’s plugging is his weirdest in years. Since 2010 he’s been working with producer Ethan Johns – best known for his work with Kings of Leon and Paolo Nutini – and released three albums in the vein of late period Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, tackling old cover versions with a minimal backdrop that allowed the gravitas of a mighty voice to be fully admired.
This fourth one, Surrounded by Time, is still covers, but the music has shifted from being largely acoustic to veering all over the place. The gospel opener, I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall, is backed by little more than the drone of a bowed bass. No Hole in my Head, by Malvina Reynolds, is fantastic fun with its pounding beat and electric sitar. Lazarus Man, originally by Terry Callier, is over nine minutes of looped synthesizer, loose-limbed electric guitar and Jones hollering, while on the funky Talking Reality Television Blues, he almost raps.
It’s heady stuff, even more surprising if you’ve only heard him on ITV lately. What a wonderful surprise.