When an artist has been around for as long as Tom Jones, it almost becomes acceptable to live from the wealth of previous successes, to take the easy route rather than challenge yourself artistically. Thankfully, this is a school of thought that Jones doesn’t subscribe to on the illuminating Surrounded By Time, the most recent album by the Welsh icon.
Considering the current economic climate within the music industry, making a record is far from the lucrative business it once was. In fact, The Who’s Roger Daltrey recently stated that he had no intentions to get back in the studio again, simply because there’s no money to be made from that medium of expression in the age of streaming. In a similar stature, Jones hasn’t released an album since 2015, and, in truth, his back catalogue means he can sell out any venue on the planet without having to share another note of music.
However, on Surrounded By Time, Jones shows that he makes music to flex his artistic muscles rather than searching for a payday, and the album is a bold proclamation. Surrounded By Time is a reimagining of songs that inhabit a special place in Jones’ heart and sees the crooner put a delectable spin on some of his favourites.
In the interim period since he released Long Lost Suitcase in 2015, Jones’ life was turned upside down by the loss of his wife, Linda, who he’d been married to since he was a teenager. After she passed away in 2016, Jones left Los Angeles behind and moved back to London, starting a new chapter in his life.
For as long as he could remember, the two had been side by side, and Jones pours his grief into the heartbreaking track ‘I Won’t Lie’. Michael Kiwanuka originally recorded the track for his 2012 debut, Home Again, and hearing the Welsh veteran’s earth-shatteringly authentic take is breathtaking.
‘Growing Old’ is another moment on the record that leaves you clutching for the nearest box of tissues, as Jones faces up to the fact that he is now in his 80s, observing that aspects of life don’t necessarily work in the same way in stark comparison to when he was a young upstart in the 1960s.
One thing that hasn’t changed throughout his career, however, is the voice of Tom Jones, which is still as strong and distinct as ever. In a world in which autotuned vocals reign supreme, it’s a refreshing tonic to hear a voice that remains beautifully refined and captivating but ultimately natural and connected.
‘Talking Reality Television Blues’ is a hypnotic effort, which sounds unrecognisable to the extensive back catalogue of Jones, displaying his ability to continually push forward with new forms of expression. The track not only offers up the most left-field moment on the album, but quite possibly Jones’ career — and the gamble pays off in no uncertain terms.
The album is Jones’ fourth under the stewardship of producer Ethan Johns, and the two have built up a tight-knit working relationship. Over time spent working together, they’ve slowly continued to mix things up and deliver the unexpected. The fact that Johns is a contemporary producer, a figure who has worked with acts like Laura Marling, The Vaccines, and Michael Kiwanuka, strikes a delicate balance as it collides with Jones’ old-school experience as their two worlds come together on Surrounded By Time.
Jones and Johns have built something extraordinary with Surrounded By Time. The record is full of creative flair and sincerity in equal measure. It’s clear as day that the 80-year-old still has a desperate want to make music that challenges him and the listener.
Hearing Jones deliver such a poignant record is two-fingers to anyone who dares to write off an artist once they’ve reached a certain age. Album closer, ‘Lazurus Man’, is a nine-minute act of defiance that wraps up the record in an ostentatiously epic manner.
Over the last half a century, Jones has had many different guises and re-inventions. While this record might not get the attention that other eras of his career received, Surrounded By Time shows that there’s plenty of life left in the shapeshifting Tom Jones.