It arguably started with Johnny Cash, then producer Rick Rubin applied the same methods to Neil Diamond; take a veteran performer, a “heritage” act, in music biz parlance, and place them in an earthier, more intimate environment. “Unplugged” isn’t an entirely accurate description, but a word in the promotional material for Spirit In The Room pretty much hits the nail on the head – “unvarnished”.
At various points in his lengthy career, Jones has bordered on self-parody, all booming voice and larger-than- life persona, and the thing that he’s really good at – ie, singing – has tended to be a secondary consideration. Here, working in tandem with producer Ethan Johns, the oft-overlooked interpretive skills he possesses are given free rein, be it on a subdued but superbly passionate reading of Leonard Cohen’s Tower Of Song or a yearning take on Richard Thompson’s Dimming Of The Day.
The song choices are exemplary, allowing soulful testifying on Paul Simon’s Love And Blessings, a country-blues swagger on Odetta’s Hit Or Miss, and a surprisingly dramatic but not overly theatrical howl on Tom Waits’ Bad As Me. In essence, Jones takes a back seat to the material, his voice serving the specific needs of the song rather than the other way round, and he hasn’t sound this good, so on top of his game in years.