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Jones: Getty Images • Hagen: AP

Going gospel

Music | Showman Tom Jones and punk rocker Nina Hagen put out gospel albums that work

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

The news that Tom Jones, the Welsh singer as famous for his good-natured machismo as for his leather-lunged singing, was releasing a gospel album shouldn't have come as a surprise. Sooner or later, practically every singer releases a gospel album-even Jones' old rival on the Las Vegas circuit, Engelbert Humperdinck. Humperdinck's was called Always Hear the Harmony: The Gospel Sessions and beat Jones to the gospel punch by seven years.

But Jones' Praise and Blame (Island) hits a lot harder.

Its secret isn't Jones' voice per se. Even at 70 he waxes stentorian, often belting where a caress would do. But his singing less impressively than Prince didn't hurt the cover of "Kiss" that Jones recorded with the Art of Noise in 1988, and his singing less impressively than Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Blind Willie Johnson, and Billy Joe Shaver (on "Didn't It Rain," "What Good Am I?" "Nobody's Fault but Mine," and "If I Give My Soul," respectively) doesn't hamper Praise and Blame.

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The songs work because Jones' band does, aiming for and often achieving a ragged, no-frills fervor that would sound as much at home in a Mississippi roadhouse as it would in an urban storefront church. And amid such spontaneous-sounding excitement, Jones' unique brand of genre-defying showmanship sounds less like mere instinct and more like conviction.

But if upon reflection a gospel album by Tom Jones makes a kind of sense, a gospel album by the German punk rocker Nina Hagen would've been as unimaginable to anyone familiar with her career as a polka album by George Beverly Shea.

And it's still unimaginable-perhaps even more so-now that it has actually come out.

As of this writing, Personal Jesus (Universal UK/Zoom) is available stateside only as an import-only special order. But it's worth every exorbitant cent.

For decades, Hagen was the poster child for all things outré, emitting dithyrambic celebrations of UFOs and the deities of practically every pantheon in a voice that maniacally mongrelized opera and punk.

She doesn't sound that way anymore: If at 55 she can still evoke fantasies of Marlene Dietrich throwing a tantrum after a particularly harsh night, she's now singing lyrics like "God's radar is fixed on you!"

In other words, Personal Jesus is no joke. Rather, it's the first musical fruit of Hagen's baptism in the Protestant Reformed Church of Schüttorf last year and therefore a punk album in drumming and overall high-energy level only. What it really is, is the most left-field-holler gospel album since Gordon Gano put the Violent Femmes on the back burner to record The Mercy Seat. And Personal Jesus is better.

Bookending the many traditional gospel chestnuts ("I'll Live Again," "Down at the Cross," "Just a Little Talk with Jesus," "Take Jesus with You") are two terrific obscurities. The Rev. Dan Smith's "God's Radar" kicks the album off to chiming acoustic guitar strums before shifting into zydeco, and Marion Williams' slow, late-night blues, "Sometimes I Ring Up Heaven," ends it. The context they create makes even "All You Fascists Bound to Lose" sound as if it could've been penned by someone who'd someday father the Arlo Guthrie of Outlasting the Blues (which, in fact, it was). And, like Tom Jones, Hagen also does Blind Willie Johnson's "Nobody's Fault but Mine."

But what really dropkicks this album through the goalposts of life is Hagen's version of the title track. Coming from Depeche Mode, "Personal Jesus" has always sounded like an ironic anti­televangelist screed. Coming from Hagen, it's an altar call like they just don't make anymore-and probably never did.

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