This is a great cover of a great Leonard Cohen song, but I’m not sure it works for the reasons it was intended to. I came to it through the video: Jones as a lone figure in what looks like an abandoned house, walls all plaster patches and water stains, a few pieces of weathered furniture. He sometimes sits in a large chair and stares at us as he sings the lyrics, sometimes wanders the wrecked house with his eyes downcast. Apart from one or two cutaways to a black cat running down the stairs, the camera stays on Jones, mostly his face and clasped hands: prodding, as unrelenting and unforgiving as time itself, which is partially the theme of the song.
Well, sure, someone has seen Johnny Cash’s videos from the Rick Rubin years, especially “Hurt.” Someone is clearly trying to elevate Tom Jones into that elder statesman pantheon, use Jones’s own aging as a metaphor and make his personal history provide the song’s backstory. Only it doesn’t really work: Jones looks too good, and his backstory isn’t all that tragic, some martial discord, some issues with groupies, but on the other hand a consistent grounding sense of humor about himself and hits in every decade since the sixties. Even as he’s trying to assume the pose of an old man looking death in the eyes, Jones instead still seems the impish Welshman he’s always been.
The vocal is passionate: it doesn’t improve on Cohen’s version, but it certainly stands up to it. And the arrangement makes some smart decisions: not going back again to the first verse at the end of the song, getting rid of the “da doo run run” backup singers Leonard inexplicably put on both his recorded and live versions. Tom mostly keeps things low-key, conversational, but there’s a musical and vocal swell during the wonderful bridge that gives me shivers every time. I can’t resist quoting the lyrics, a perpetual temptation whenever discussing Leonard Cohen:
I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
But I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything we lost
We’ll never have to lose it again….
We expect our elder statesmen, with their battered voices and faces and histories of addiction and self-sabotaging decisions, to be able to confront and speak the deep, painful truths. But that even an impish Welshman who looks and sounds at least thirty years younger than he is and who’s frankly had a pretty good career ride seems to know so much about mortality and regret and the sacrifices made for art: I find that all the more moving.