CHICAGO (Billboard) - Pop star Tom Jones’ new album is the 68-year-old’s first U.S. release in 15 years and, practically speaking, his American comeback — in the studio, anyway; he still performs more than 200 shows a year.
“I’ve been thinking about this album for a long time now,” Jones says of “24 Hours,” due November 25 on S-Curve Records. “I’ve had success worldwide, but with albums that were never released in America.” (His last album, 2000’s rock-covers collection “Reload,” moved 5 million copies in Europe, but labels found its roster of British-leaning duet partners off-putting, so it never came out stateside.)
Unlike artists like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, Jones isn’t using the comeback pedestal to deliver a stark, acoustic, depth-of-the-soul thing; this is a characteristically splashy, bombastic, large-sounding platter of future-retro swagger in the vein of the Amy Winehouse-led throwback-soul movement. (It was produced by British duo Future Cut, which has been behind recent tracks by Kate Nash, Lily Allen and Estelle.)
Witness these couplets from “Sugar Daddy,” a vaguely dirty come-on at the record’s center: “I been singing this song before you were born”; “I’ve got male intuition/I’ve got sexual ambition”; “You don’t send a boy to do a man’s job.” The best part: The Welsh singer got U2’s Bono and the Edge to write that for him after a night of drinking in a Dublin pub.
In Jones’ mind, the key to the recording was keeping sharp watch on the balance among his progressive ambitions, the music’s retro feel and the substantial weight of his reputation, and he says records like Winehouse’s gave him confidence that his plan was solid.
“It was reassuring,” he says. “When (“Back to Black”) came out, I thought, ‘It can be done. People do want it.’ It confirmed what we were doing.”
What he was doing was setting a series of ground rules, chief among them that the record wouldn’t be a simple nostalgia trip. He also took a greater role in defining the sound and, for the first time in decades, in the songwriting.
A series of meetings with Future Cut followed (“They wanted to do a ‘Tom Jones record,’ which I was thrilled about,” Jones says with a chuckle), as did the process of paging through many volumes of songs. One producer, in fact, wanted Jones to do a classic-soul covers record.
“I said, ‘Yeah, but that’s been done.’ And it seemed when people are out of ideas, they revert to songs that were hits once and could be hits again. Which is alright, but you need to move forward.”
In order to do that, Jones needed to be around from day one. “I’ve been lazy sometimes in that respect, because things have just happened, and I’ve had hits with things that have been sent my way,” he says. “But now if you want it to be the way you want it, you have to be in there from the ground.”
To that end, he set out to discount more obvious tracks, including one early pitch with the salacious hook of “You look good with my T-shirt on, you’d look even better with it off.”
“That’s completely what I’m not looking for,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m trying to make a statement. That’s too easy.’ So things got more serious. It’s not like it’s all very, very serious, but all songs say something. You can picture something when you’re listening to them.”
There are 13 songs to picture on “24 Hours”: joyful major-chord dance machines (“Give a Little Love”); a cover of a relatively obscure Bruce Springsteen song (“The Hitter,” from “Devils & Dust”); an icy story-song set on death row (“24 Hours”); and ready-made openers for Jones’ live set (“I’m Alive,” an old Tommy James & the Shondells B-side). The marquee attractions are probably the Springsteen track and “Sugar Daddy.”
He recalls, “(Bono) said, ‘You’re the only man who can get away with this. It’s right in your face. It’s a bragging song — your take on entertaining, if you like.’”
Meanwhile, “The Hitter,” Jones says, was Greenberg’s idea. Springsteen’s version is delivered in a hushed, acoustic setting; Jones’ adds horns and a couple of vocal takeoffs that leave the song’s ending a little less melancholy.
Jones “really relates to this story of this older boxer who’s been through it all,” says S-Curve Records founder/CEO Steve Greenberg. “That’s the theme of a lot of the record: somebody looking back while still continuing to lead life to the fullest.”