Why it's not unusual for ageing stars to enjoy a comeback
Tom Jones's new album is his best in years, but he's only the latest elder statesmen to silence the naysayers, writes Music Critic John Meagher
Published 29/07/2010 | 05:00
Island Records celebrated its 50th birthday in 2009 and its achievements in nurturing young acts was well documented. During its year of celebration, and without fanfare, the label signed Tom Jones.
As a veteran with half a century of show business behind him, the Welshman could hardly be more different to the up-and-coming names normally signed by the label.
Fast forward 12 months, and Jones's first album for Island was released on Friday. But even before it hit the shelves, Praise & Blame had attracted considerable publicity as a result of a leaked email sent by Island's vice president, David Sharpe.
"I want to know if this is some sick joke???" the executive wrote on first hearing Jones's album. "We did not invest a fortune in an established artist for him to deliver 12 tracks from the common book of prayer."
Happily for Jones, the critics took a very different view to Sharpe. The album is being hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters, while elsewhere four-star reviews are being showered like confetti. It is, by some distance, the most acclaimed Tom Jones album in years -- and not bad for a 70-year-old who many had considered washed up by 40.
What Praise & Blame has done is highlight the phenomenon of the ageing singer, way past his or her prime, who has enjoyed a late flowering.
Johnny Cash kicked off the trend in 1994 with the first of six albums under the American Recordings series, produced by Rick Rubin.
It is difficult to believe it now, but the Man in Black had been considered a very poor shadow of his former self for much of the 1980s and 1990s.
In his autobiography, Cash, he talked about being at loggerheads with his record company, Columbia, and recorded an intentionally awful song, 'Chicken in Black', in order to force a split.
He got his wish, but a short-lived period with a new label, Mercury Records, did little to resuscitate his career.
Rick Rubin, famed for his production work with hip hop acts, would not have seemed an obvious candidate as the man to turn Cash's career around, but his idea was remarkably simple: have Cash record a batch of new songs, many of them covers, strip the production right back and bring the singer's powerful, naked vocal to the fore.
The choice of songs was key -- with unifying teams of honesty, integrity, regret and salvation.
The album prompted a huge interest in Cash once more -- and a further five albums in the series would follow (the first three released while he was still alive).
The template of elder statesman singing songs of redemption in a straight-up manner, unadorned with studio bells and whistles, is perfected on Tom Jones's album.
The raw emotion that courses through the album is in stark contrast to the 'It's Not Unusual' pop of the days when he attracted women's knickers like scraps of iron to a magnet.
Jones worked with the producer Ethan Johns, famed for his collaboration with young southern US rock upstarts, Kings of Leon, and celebrated folk newcomer, Laura Marling, and Johns has clearly been influenced by Rubin's less-is-more attitude.
That approach also paid dividends when Rubin worked with Neil Diamond for his 2006 comeback, 12 Songs. The producer stripped the songs free of the kitsch that had sullied Diamond's later career, and simply teamed his voice with acoustic guitar.
The plaintive approach helped new fans see Diamond in a completely different light, although the rather cheesy pomp and ceremony was back when he played Croke Park in support of the album.
For musicians to enjoy a creative resurrection in later life, it's necessary for them to have fallen on aesthetically barren periods.
That was certainly the case for David Bowie, who had struggled to recapture the form that had made his work for the entire 1970s and the early part of the following decade so zeitgeist-defining. The nadir came towards the end of the 1980s when he fronted Tin Machine and attracted the worst reviews of his career.
By the time he released Heathen in 2002, few expected much but that album showed that his creativity had been spectacularly restored -- and it was no one-off.
The following year, he unleashed the equally well-received Reality. Regrettably Bowie has not released another album since then, with poor health partly to blame.
Bob Dylan also managed to get back on track in 1997 with the Time Out of Mind album, after years of trying the patience of even his most ardent fan. Dylan's status as the iconic American songwriter of the second half of the 20th Century had been assured long before, but it was good to see him recapture some of his early magic.
Subsequent albums, Modern Times and Together Through Life also topped the US album charts, a feat he hadn't managed in 30 years. In contrast, his 1993 album World Gone Wrong only managed to limp to number 70 in the chart.
Paul McCartney has not enjoyed such high chart placings for his solo albums, but he can at least be comforted by the critical acclaim that has greeted his work under The Fireman moniker.
The ex-Beatle -- together with the producer Flood -- has allowed his creativity to run riot and while their most recent Fireman album together, Electric Arguments, failed to generate much radio play, it reveals a yen for experimentalism that was first fostered on the Beatles' Revolver in 1966.
And let's not forget the women. Shirley Bassey has also enjoyed a spectacular return to form.
Her first album of original compositions, The Performance, was released to glowing reviews last year and helped a new generation to rediscover the vocal prowess of the Welsh Dame.
Produced by the English composer David Arnold, each track was specially written for Bassey by contemporary musicians such as Rufus Wainwright, Gary Barlow and her compatriots Manic Street Preachers.
Meanwhile, that other figurehead of Welsh music, Tom Jones, is expected to beat Eminem to the UK number one position. Rarely has the adage about old wine felt so apt.