How amazing it is when you decide to listen to a recording because you’re curious about it and suddenly it turns out to be something so powerful and so touching that it becomes one of your favorite musical acquisitions ever.
That’s what happened to me with Tom Jones’ Spirit in the Room. I remember Jones as a sexy and powerful performer in the ’60s and ’70s. Now he’s 71 years old and I wanted to hear how he sounded these days. The answer is, he sounds wonderful. His voice is just as powerful as ever, with a gritty edge and perhaps even more emotional depth.
More importantly, Jones has obviously reached a point where he only wants to do songs that fit his life now, songs that match his life experience. Songs for grown ups.
Here, Jones does numbers like “Tower of Song,” by Leonard Cohen, and “I Want to Come Home,” by Paul McCartney. He shows he can still rock on Odetta’s “Hit or Miss,” and makes Tom Waits’ “Bad as Me” absolutely believable. The songs here, all covers, include writers as diverse Blind Willie Johnson and Odetta to Paul Simon and Richard and Linda Thompson, yet all sound absolutely right together in this set.
Jones’ version of Paul Simon’s “Love and Blessings” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man?” reach into blues, gospel and folk for inspiration, and are soul-stirring songs indeed. The traditional “Traveling Blues” also mines the gospel and folk vein very effectively. Richard and Linda Thompson’s poignant “Dimming of the Day” could only be done by an artist who has faced the approach of mortality and knows what he needs in his last days.
“All Blues Hail Mary,” written by Joe Henry, is unlike any song I’ve heard. It is a blues meditation about faith and recognizing one’s own mortal nature, yet holding on to life with both hands. Frankly, this song brought me to tears by the end of it. “Charlie Darwin,” written and originally performed by The Low Anthem, also had me in tears. That is how deeply profound, heartfelt ,and true these songs and Jones’ rendition of them are.
Frankly, I am nearly past my middle years and I don’t know how a younger person might respond to these songs. I would hope that any adult with wisdom and feeling of any age will be touched, moved, and enriched by the listening.
According to the press release, the musical accompaniment was purposely kept as simple as possible on this recording, and that is just right. It allows Jones’ expressive voice to wring every bit of feeling from each lyric. The press release also says that the whole recording was done in about two weeks, and that gives just the right feel and urgency to it, not brushed and made perfect, not tamed, but almost like literally being in the room and feeling the spirit.
This is a magical recording, one to be savored again and again. I believe that it should take its place alongside Johnny Cash’s American Recordings albums as the best music by a great, mature artist of our time.