One of the least creative things you can be is a National Institution. Sure, it’s nice to be loved, but where is the space to manoeuvre? Fans – and there’s a lot of them – come to expect your trademark, and arrive at gigs demanding something they recognise, as opposed to something that will surprise them.
The past decade, however, has seen Tom Jones balance his role as a National Institution with some of the most gutsy and raw performances of his career. Working closely with producer Ethan Johns, he tapped into the gospel, country, blues, and soul influences that first fired his imagination as a kid in the valleys. 2010’s ‘Praise & Blame’ was a startling late-career about-turn, followed by ‘Spirit In The Room’ and 2015’s ‘Long Lost Suitcase’.
Since then he’s been a constant fixture on our screens, a judge on the Voice and a seemingly unstoppable, lung-bursting live act. ‘Surrounded By Time’ however dips away from the veneer of fame, and presents a picture of an artist who is often explicit in his yearning for both personal and aesthetic freedom.
‘Talking Reality Television Blues’ was a remarkable opening gambit. A bruised and bruising experience, Tom took apart the distorting impact of fame, instead searching for something real in amongst the debris. Ethan Johns’ arrangement seemed to push him into a fresh space, while the half-spoken vocal managed to conjure the ghosts of Hank Williams while still sounding resolutely new.
‘One More Cup Of Coffee’ found the Welsh singer re-working a Bob Dylan song he’s loved for decades, pushing his life experience to the fore on a husked, damaged vocal. The bubbling ‘Pop Star’ however flipped the script, swapping Americana for electro on a teasing, subversive take on the search for fame.
As an album, ‘Surrounded By Time’ sits somewhere between these three points. Tom Jones is able to immerse himself in true American gospel – take the foot-stomping ‘Samson And Delilah’ – but he’s also able to conjure sitar-soaked 60s pop on the delirious ‘No Hole In My Head’. What connects all this is his spirit, with that powerful, unrelenting vocal able to move from a dense, Nick Cave esque take on ‘Windmills Of Your Mind’ to the sombre, reflective ‘I’m Growing Old’.
Indeed, age and its impact on body and soul is a recurring theme on the record. ‘Surrounded By Time’ finds an artist chafing against encroaching limitations, while also serving notice that he won’t be bound by them. Album opener ‘I Won’t Crumble’ is utterly defiant, with closing statement ‘Lazarus Man’ promising another re-birth, another tussle with renewal.
An album marked by experience, ‘Surrounded By Time’ also grapples with possibility. A world away from his genial role on Saturday Night Television, it’s a 12 strong song cycle that finds Tom Jones doing exactly as he pleases. It’s an extraordinary balancing act, another vital page in this remarkable ongoing chapter.
Words: Robin Murray
- - -
- - -
Join us on the ad-free creative social network Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks, exclusive content and access to Clash Live events and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.