From a distance, Tom Jones’ new Praise & Blame seems like just another Johnny Cash-style comeback by an aging star. And in a sense, it is. But Jones is a pop artist, and as such, he has every right to latch onto whatever trend he likes. With Praise & Blame, however, he’s done more than shallowly recasting himself as a gospel-and-blues interpreter. He’s reached deep and tapped into the real stuff.
Jones’ leap is less radical than it looks. He has been doing credible R&B covers—forget his kitschy rendition of Prince’s “Kiss”—since the ’60s, and his voice has always held a magisterial authority. In fact, the friction between his booming pipes and his often-lightweight material has long been his trademark. But Praise & Blame features no such disconnect. Jones’ thunderous baritone, eroded to perfection, is wedded to spectral folk hymns and skeletal gospel stompers—most of which are harrowingly fixated on death, hellfire, and Jesus. The disc’s production and arrangements are impeccably sympathetic. Haunting and rawboned, the backing music sweeps Jones closer to Nick Cave than to Johnny Cash, though like Cash’s American Recordings series, Praise & Blame is a stark, soul-probing study in imminent mortality. But amid its grim-yet-joyous ecstasy, Jones gives no hint that his reinvention is anything less than a legitimate bid for salvation—artistic, personal, and even eternal.