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Tom Jones: Spirit in the Room

Review of Spirit in the Room by Tom JonesAt the age of 72, most pure pop vocalists (if they’re still able to sing) are playing it safe, rehashing their tried and true work, or recording duets with friendly young stars to lift their visibility. Spirit in the Room,the new album from Tom Jones on Rounder Records in the U.S., is, however, nothing like that.

A couple of months back, I wrote at some length about the recording which is the opening tune on this album, namely Tom Jones’ rendition of “Tower of Song,” written by Leonard Cohen. I found it quite moving, brilliant and defining. I still do, and listening to the album which accompanies it does not disappoint. I think that any day would be a nice day to hear an album like this one.

There’s a certain kind of courage involved for a vocalist in tackling new material—material which has hardly been touched by other vocalists—and it’s on display here, albeit that the casual listener might not necessarily pick up on it. Since Dylan and the Beatles, the notion of “authenticity” has been very weighty in the sphere of popular music, and it’s inherently challenging for a singer to take on a song that has already been sung by those that have composed it. Tom Jones here, in collaboration with his producer Ethan Johns, shows no fear, but sings songs that have been recorded both very recently and quite brilliantly by the respective composers. That he pulls it off in each case without sounding ridiculous is no small achievement. And he generally does much better than that. Continue reading Tom Jones: Spirit in the Room

Tower of Song Tom Jones

Tom Jones and a Towering “Tower of Song”

Review

Scheduled for release on April 23rd in the U.S. (on Rounder Records) is a new album from Tom Jones, titled Spirit in the Room. It was released on the other side of the pond last year. I confess I’ve only just become aware of it, and that was through my encountering on YouTube the video for Tom Jones’ rendition of Leonard Cohen’s great old tune “Tower of Song,” which is the first track on the album.

This is one of those cases where yours truly tries not to come across too hyperbolic and breathless, but, frankly, hearing Tom Jones’ performance of this song left me simultanously devastated and delighted. It’s one of those musical moments I would compare to tripping over a bag in the street stuffed with two million dollars in unmarked bills, and making it all the way home with it safely. Those are the good days. If you have not heard it, do take a listen to it via the embedded YouTube clip here and I’ll say a few more words of my own about it below.

(A side-note: Many other artists ought to watch that clip and learn that there are ways to make videos that neither detract nor distract from the song. Kudos to the director, one Paul Caslin.)

The song was first recorded by Leonard Cohen on his great 1988 album I’m Your Man. Leonard’s version features a sparse kind of piano/synth arrangement, with backing singers, distinctly low-budget but witty. Yet Tom Jones’ stripped-down rendition makes Cohen’s seem exceedingly ornate by comparison.

To me, at least, Tom Jones’ version of “Tower of Song” is one of those revelatory performances where a singer takes a song to a place that the songwriter himself could not have envisioned, and lives in it and makes it his own.

When Cohen wrote the tune, it was the song and testament of a songwriter. He sounded pretty darned old in 1988, singing this song and looking back (and to a degree looking forward) on his life and the vocation of songwriting and meditating both profoundly and humorously upon it. He was in fact about fifty-four years of age. (Who knew that twenty-five years later he’d be experiencing a peak of popularity, undertaking huge concert tours and continuing to write some of the best songs of his career? Certainly he, of all people, did not know it.)

There is a couplet in the song that I think is crucial both to the original rendition and to this cover version:

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

In Cohen’s version, this is an exquisite joke—a self-deprecating piece of irony. No one ever accused Leonard of having a golden voice, although many have accused him of having a voice comparable to considerably less precious substances. The couplet is both a gag and a metaphor: his gift, as we know, is actually that he is a writer. He is obliged by some ineffable commandment to write his songs, but he also finds that he must sing them himself, regardless of his voice, simply so that they will be heard.

Yet, sung by Tom Jones, the magical and beautiful thing is that Continue reading Tom Jones and a Towering “Tower of Song”