If all the different versions of Tom Jones that we’ve known over the last half-century were to meet, you have to wonder if they’d recognise each other. You figure the early R&B fan would know the later countrified performer, and the It’s Not Unusual swinger would recognise the subsequent Vegas incarnation. But it feels like the talent show judge in that silly revolving chair might not have much in common with the fella who keeps coming through as the essence of ol’ Tom: the one who keeps making these remarkable, stripped-back album statements with producer Ethan Johns.
Long Lost Suitcase is being presented as the closing chapter of a trilogy that began when Jones dug right down to his roots for 2010’s Praise & Blame and followed it two years later with Spirit In The Room. One hopes that won’t be the end of the affair, and at 75 years young and with all parts apparently in good working order, there’s no reason it will be. The only differences this time around are extraneous: losing his Voice, so to speak, and having a new memoir to promote. Over The Top And Back, indeed.
Back where it matters, and where Tom admirably chooses to bare his soul, is in the studio, where he has amassed yet a third formidable variety box of songs culled from country, Americana and R&B sources old and new. If the selections seem a little scattershot on paper, they make another alluring whole, in which US indie folk duo the Milk Carton Kids might be somewhat startled to have secured a nod from Jones (on Honey, Honey) that sits in between selections from Willie Nelson and Willie Dixon.
The statement Jones is making here is confident rather than cocksure: I’m still at the top of my vocal game, I want to show that in the most honest way possible, and if I can’t do it at this stage of the game, then when?
Thus Nelson’s emotionally blackened Opportunity To Cry opens the set with the lovely, threadbare setting of acoustic guitar and a voice varnished only with a little reverb, later augmented by gentle percussion. Your relationship with his interpretations may be influenced by how well you know the originals, but even if you dug Los Lobos’ Everybody Loves A Train, for example, there is much to admire about this utterly authentic reading.
Nor do Jones and Johns take the painting by numbers option, often reimagining the material with considerable daring. Gillian Welch’s Elvis Presley Blues now has his booming voice echoing in the middle of the mix against an electric guitar that reverberates like a Geiger counter. Factory Girl, The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet serving, is similarly reshaped in traditional folk style.
For all the restraint he displays, though, he can still rock, never better than on Billy Boy Arnold’s I Wish You Would. Sonny Boy Williamson, Hank Williams… it’s basically all back to Tom’s for another rifle through the record collection, but as a late-career gear- change, the sequence begins to rival the scope and charm of the Cash-Rubin alliance.