For an artist such as Sir Tom Jones, with over 100 million record sales to his name, certain milestones loom large over the horizon—and with those milestones come certain expectations. A few years ago, Jones’ record label raised the topic of his 80th birthday in June 2020. When you’ve enjoyed 36 Top 40 hits spanning five decades, a new “Greatest Hits” collection somewhat suggests itself. People start to use the word “legacy” a lot—and not, in this case, without good reason. If you want to talk about legacy and Tom Jones, it’s hard to know where to begin. Musical calling cards such as “It’s Not Unusual,” “What’s New Pussycat,” “Delilah,” “If I Only Knew,” and “Sexbomb” barely scratch the surface of a career that also includes networked primetime TV shows spanning over five decades both in America and the UK, countless Las Vegas residencies, and a string of Grammy, Ivor Novello, and Brit Awards. But, after a period of upheaval which saw him come to terms with the loss of Linda his wife of 59 years and spend time in hospital with a bacterial infection, Jones’ instinct was not to reflect upon his legacy, but further extend it.
Having recorded three hugely acclaimed albums with producer Ethan Johns (Laura Marling, Paolo Nutini, Kings Of Leon, Ray Lamontagne), Jones was keen to continue what was already the longest musical association of his career. An avid record collector, there were songs he had set aside for decades, waiting to reach an age at which he would truly be able to do them justice. He remembered a visit from revered jazz composer and singer Bobby Cole after one of his Vegas shows in 1972, in which Cole presented him with a song called “I’m Growing Old.” Cole figured the song needed a big, characterful voice to inhabit it. Jones agreed, “I told him I really loved it, the melody of it, the chords of it, but I was 33. I just didn’t feel like I was old enough to do it justice at that point. I remember Clint Eastwood saying something similar about The Unforgiven. He had that story as a young man, and he held onto that script until he was old enough to try and do it justice. Sometimes you just have to be patient.”
True to his word, the very first song that Jones recorded after reconvening with Ethan Johns late in 2019 was the Bobby Cole song. What was meant to be a run-through for the benefit of keyboard player Neil Cowley (The Neil Cowley Trio) resulted in an electrifying performance and ultimately became the take heard on the record. “I think that performance caught both Neil and myself by surprise,” recalls Jones, “Because I had never sung the song all the way through and Neil had never played it, but that’s the magic you’re always chasing in the studio.”
Recording in his native Wales for the very first time, that first session laid down the blueprint for much of what followed. With the band making full use of Monnow Valley Studios’ residential wing, Surrounded By Time took shape not just when the red light was on, but over breakfast discussions and walks around the surrounding countryside.
For Tom Jones and Ethan Johns, the first question to ask about any song when figuring out its suitability for an album is always the same: what does it require in the here and now? Once again, the answer was one at which Jones arrived by digging deep into a lifetime spent listening closely to other singers. As a teenager, among the first records he bought from Freddie Fay’s music shop in Pontypridd were 78s by Hank Williams, whose Luke The Drifter alter ego would elect to speak rather than sing his songs. It was this approach which led Jones to record “Ol’ Mother Earth.” As the foreboding undercurrents of the lyric are teased out in a brooding ensemble performance, Jones handles the vocal like a seasoned actor, trying to make sense of the senseless devastation portended by Tony Joe White’s original lyric. It was a technique to which Jones returned for the first single from Surrounded By Time, “Talking Reality Television Blues.” Even in Jones’ storied career, this track marked a foray into hitherto uncharted territory. Over six and a half minutes, this modern parable addresses the pernicious effect of reality television on the reality it purports to represent.
Further mining inspiration from the American folk-blues canon, the second single from Surrounded By Time saw Tom and Ethan take a little-known song by pioneering songwriter/activist Malvina Reynolds and hotwire new life into it with a sizzling electric sitar display and an incendiary vocal performance from Tom himself. “Sometimes,” elaborates Tom, “you can see a glimmer of something in a song that hasn’t quite revealed itself. I saw a clip of [Malvina Reynolds] doing this song with Pete Seeger and a bunch of other people, and it was great, but I thought that it needed a measure of aggression for what’s happening now, in this social media age, with people trying to get you to think this and that. And I notice that young people get it in the neck from all directions, which is unfair given that they’re inheriting the mess we’ve made of things. So once you throw all those elements into the mix, it was bound to kick off!”
Here and elsewhere, perhaps the question that determined the shape and feel of Surrounded By Time was this: what if this were to be Tom Jones’ final album? “I hope I get to make several more,” he adds, “But at this point, you really have to make it count.” That goes some way to explaining song selections that draw from the entirety of Jones’ story. For “Pop Star,” Jones recast the slightly ironic intent of Cat Stevens’ original lyric with Jones’ own recollections of early success: the intoxicating headrush of “first fame.” The kaleidoscopic quality of those early memories, propelled within the space of a few years from Pontypridd to the orbit of childhood heroes such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Ray Charles, also informed Jones’ version of “Windmills Of Your Mind,” a standard which he had never previously recorded.
Other songs, meanwhile, were informed by recent events in Jones’ life, in particular the contemporary gospel intimacies of the album’s opening song “I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall.” Originally written by Bernice Johnson Reagon, acclaimed social activist and founder member of Sweet Honey In The Rock, the song assumed a new significance for Jones as he and his wife Linda came to terms with her illness. “I was on the road, when I got the call to tell me that things have really taken a turn for the worse, so I rushed back to spend whatever time was left with her. I said, ‘Look Linda, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t see life after this. She knew she was dying, but she was the calmest person in the room. I said to her, ‘I don’t even know whether I’m going to be able to sing, because songs are sticking in my throat.’ And she said, ‘You must promise me that you will. Think of the good times. Don’t think of what’s happening right now.’ So really, the message of the song is me keeping my promise to her.”
On what is almost certainly Jones’ most personal collection to date, two songs in particular seem to draw deepest of all from decades of experience: “This Is The Sea” and “Lazarus Man.” On “This Is The Sea,” something undeniably powerful takes hold when Tom Jones rides a tidal swell of gospel organ and acoustic guitar to dispense words of redemption to his subject: “Now I hear there’s a train/It’s coming on down the line/It’s yours if you hurry/You’ve got still enough time/And you don’t need no ticket/And you don’t pay no fee/No you don’t need no ticket.” Recalling the session which yielded this hair-raising performance, Tom says, “What you hear on that is the entire band in the room, just in the moment. And it doesn’t get any better than that, when you’ve got a song like this, and you’ve got a song that can not only bear the weight of all your accumulated experience, but soar with it, do you know what I mean?”
You can hear the same magic at work on the other song which deals with memory and hindsight. Approaching “Lazarus Man,” Jones was equally drawn to both characters in the lyrics: “This idea that you’re both the teacher, and the student. I’m telling the story but I’m listening at the same time. You rise up again. You never die. Not really. That’s why I raise my voice again at the end.” For Jones, returning from his longest recording hiatus to date, choosing to politely decline the advice of medical professionals, there couldn’t be a more apt way to conclude his 41 studio album. “Every time you drop the needle on the record, I’ll be right there with you.”
Biography provided by artist management.