Spirit in the Room
4 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
A much younger version of myself would not have condescended to listen to any album by Tom Jones, and would’ve been very disappointed to see him on a label as dear to me as Rounder. What used to be an essential part of my proudly held music snobbishness—the notion that, for a singer to be legitimate, he had to sing his own stuff first before dabbling elsewhere—no doubt had its roots in the effect produced on me by artists like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen, and, going much further back, men like Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. Their art worked because it was their voices singing their own words; anything less was mere entertainment.
Well of course I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now, as Bob Dylan said, and thousands of hack writers have quoted. Had I not gotten over that hang up I would have missed out on a lot of great music, including a performance last year in Cincinnati by Glen Campbell. Clearly tormented by the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Campbell put on one of the bravest, most dramatic performances I’ve ever seen. From halfway back in the hall, it was evident he really had to concentrate to remember some of the lyrics to songs he’d been singing for almost 50 years, and that his fingers didn’t quite rip off the guitar breaks exactly like he would’ve wanted.
How he overcame those limitations made for an experience that I’ll never forget, and one moment gives me chills every time I think about it. He was singing Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” with just the pianist on stage, and the monitors were feeding back, or too loud. A couple of times Campbell screwed up his face and gestured angrily to someone off stage between lines; it was clear he couldn’t hear himself. But if your eyes were closed you wouldn’t have noticed the difficulty, only the great performance it drew from him. Why would anyone deprive himself of an experience like that just because Webb, or John Hartford, wrote Campbell’s great songs?
Of course, Welsh superstar Tom Jones—as David Letterman always referred to him—is not infirm like Campbell, and on this project not singing songs he made famous. The format for Spirit in the Room is similar Praise & Blame (2010), which in turn had to have been partially inspired by Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. The results are pretty solid, and it conveys the realization that, even in his “What’s New Pussycat?” glory days, Jones has been a craftsman no less diligent than Campbell in bringing workmanlike inspiration to every song he chooses.
Indeed this CD’s opening track “Tower of Song” shows the side of Jones I hadn’t heard before: very restrained with that huge voice softly resonant and completely enveloping Leonard Cohen’s lyric. Jones changes one word, making it fit for his role as a composer’s conduit: Cohen’s twenty-seven angels tied him to a table, but they tie Jones to a stage, with the inference drawn is that such a circumstance is quite welcome. The fact that Jones and producer Ethan Johns chose this song instead of Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah,” which has been done by everyone from the masterful Jeff Buckley to the surprisingly not-too-bad Justin Timberlake, shows that they’re not taking the easy way round.
Jones borrows from other singer-songwriters of his generation, but not from their greatest hits: Bob Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down,” Paul Simon’s “Love and Blessings,” Paul McCartney’s “(I Want to) Come Home,” and Tom Waits’ “Bad as Me.” They all work, particularly the Dylan track, which cries out to be used over the closing credits of Boardwalk Empire, but I could think of a couple of dozen songs by those three giants that I’d rather hear Jones try his hand at that still wouldn’t be too easy or familiar. (Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” or Morrison’s “Philosophers Stone” would fit nicely on this record.)
Odetta never sold a fraction of the records that those guys did, but the folk-pop of her “Hit or Miss” is this albums sunniest track, and could’ve been a hit for Jones forty years ago, as could have Micky Newbury’s “Just Dropped In,” which most people these days know from the Kenny Rogers—The First Edition, actually—version in The Big Lebowski.
There is one ringer though, Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day,” which has also been done by many great singers—including Rounder’s Alison Krauss. In contrast with Alison’s version, or the original with lead vocal by the incomparable Linda Thompson, Jones’reading is masculine and vulnerable, turning a grand yearning into a humble plea.
It’s bracing to hear this ’60s icon of pre-camp pop singing “Lone Pilgrim” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man”— a couple of numbers from the old, weird American songbook that Greil Marcus likes to talk about—with timeless authority we normally reserve for giants like Dylan and Cash.
A couple of lesser-known tracks, to a certain generation at least, join the Cohen and Thompson compositions as the tracks that make this album really pretty special. Joe Henry’s “All Blues Hail Mary” and The Low Anthem’s “Charlie Darwin” are, thanks in large part to Johns’ production, as almost as spooky as Blind Willie Johnson ever was, and hearing Jones find the common vibrations throughout these thirteen tracks is pretty satisfying.