Before anyone outside the record industry had heard a note, the smoke signals surrounding Tom Jones' latest album were not positive.
In a much-publicised leaked email, David Sharpe, an executive at Island (the label which Jones joined in 2009 from his long-time home of EMI in a £1.5 million deal), complained that the Welshman was "singing hymns", called the album a "sick joke", and raged "we did not invest a fortune in an established artist for him to deliver 12 tracks from the Book of Common Prayer". Now that the dust has settled from the furore – which some claimed, not entirely convincingly, to be a publicity stunt – we can finally make up our own minds.
The truth is nothing of the sort. What's happened on Praise & Blame is that Jones, having dipped a leathery toe into the world of Ronson-esque retro-soul with 2008's 24 Hours, has gone the whole hog and taken things right back to the source, ie raw bottleneck blues and gospel. And, if he can repeat the success of Johnny Cash's American Recordings (the blueprint for many a back-to-basics effort by an elderly star), Island will have no complaints.
Of its 11 songs, more than half have no attributed author other than "trad.", and the rest were written by the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker and Billy Joe Shaver. Produced by Ethan Jones in Peter Gabriel's Real World studios with guests such as Booker T of the MGs, its sound is rootsy in a Willie Nelson-meets-White Stripes vein, and Jones' septuagenar-ian rasp suits it well. And if many of the tracks do indeed have themes of sin and redemption, in keeping with the cover photo of an old Spanish mission, they often have an evocative American gothic feel, best exemplified by Hooker's "Burning Hell" ("I'm going down to the crossroads/With no Devil will I make a deal...").
However, old habits die hard, and the silly boogie-woogie of "Don't Knock" and "Didn't It Rain" stray into familiar Las Vegas knicker- magnet territory, while "Run On" is in danger of turning into Chris Rea. Sharpe's reported explanation – "I paid for a Mercedes and ended up with a hearse" – is only half-right. At worst, it's a decent family hatchback.