Music: Tom Jones * * * *
Praise & Blame (Island)
When the venerable Tom Jones delivered this, his first album for Island Records, David Sharpe -- vice president at the label -- was aghast.
"I want to know if this is some sick joke???" he wrote in a leaked memo. "We did not invest a fortune in an established artist for him to deliver 12 tracks from the common book of prayer."
Perhaps Sharpe was hoping that the 70-year-old would deliver another Delilah from the era when Jones was at the receiving end of countless thrown knickers. Such nostalgic, radio-baiting fodder is certainly not to be found here -- as the Welsh wizard confronts his mortality in much the same way that Johnny Cash did so successfully with the American Recordings series.
Like Cash's later work, the music is stripped back and that singular voice is very much to the fore. There's a nakedness to the production -- courtesy of regular Kings of Leon cohort Ethan Johns -- which serves to accentuate the power of songs that concern themselves with such well trodden areas as regret and salvation. The singer himself recognises the similarity, calling Praise & Blame his Cash record whose themes are "choice and consequence, responsibility, struggle, temptation, good and evil".
It's no idle boast, because this is unquestionably Jones' best album in a very long time. It will come as a shock for those who see him as a purveyor of bland, middle-of-the-road pop, or as the faintly cool elder statesman for younger bands to latch on to.
But this album will prompt a critical re-appraisal, even if the money-men in Island can't see what a fine collection they have on their hands. How could Sharpe not sense what a striking track What Good Am I? is? Written by Bob Dylan, it's a scintillatingly honest number to remind us what an extraordinary instrument Jones' vocals truly are.
Burning Hell is even more arresting. A John Lee Hooker number from 1960, it finds Jones in breathtaking form as he sings as if his life depends on it. Elsewhere, he seeks out more obscure songs to cover, not least the compelling Lord, Help the Poor and Needy, written by Jessie Mae Hemphill. It -- like most of the tracks here -- is a revelation.
Burn it: Burning Hell; What Good Am I?