Album: Tom Jones, Spirit in the Room (Island)

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Spirits lift as the Voice shows he's a modern master

Continuing the association with producer Ethan Johns that proved so fruitful on Praise and Blame, Tom Jones's 2010 exploration of American blues and gospel modes, Spirit in the Room takes a decisive step forward by focusing instead on a more modern repertoire. The sound remains substantially the same, but rather than pitting himself against history, as it were, Sir Tom here tests his interpretive grasp of contemporary classics.

Thankfully, he's well advised: the material is carefully chosen to exploit his abilities, not least the opening version of Leonard Cohen's “Tower of Song”, and Jones manages to deepen the impact by bringing a much greater emotional heft to the middle eight section. Set to strummed guitar and harmonium, Paul McCartney's “(I Want To) Come Home”, with its theme of wearied resolution, likewise suits Jones's age and stature, while on Paul Simon's hymn-like “Love and Blessings”, he finds the song's inner Woody Guthrie, turning it into something akin to a dustbowl ballad.

Tom Waits' “Bad As Me” pushes Jones's envelope somewhat, its polka/rumba groove and rambunctious arrangement forcing him to adopt a vocal persona closer to a fairground barker – but he seems to enjoy it, judging by the maniacal laughter – while the simplest and most discreet of accompaniment is employed for “Dimming of the Day”, which allows this most affecting of Richard Thompson songs to breathe.

It's not all modern stuff, though; two or three of the songs – Odetta's “Hit Or Miss” and Blind Willie Johnson's “Soul of a Man” among them – could be holdovers from the previous album, the former's rousing 12-string jangle and the latter's spindly, astringent blues licks supporting Sir Tom's testifying in equally rooted manner. Finally, the album draws to a close with The Low Anthem's hymn-like “Charlie Darwin”, during which it's hard not to envisage the singer as he perhaps started out, in some Welsh Chapel, learning his craft in the pews.

Download: Tower of Song; Dimming of the Day; Soul of a Man; All Blues Hail Mary; Charlie Darwin

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