DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has been thinking about the ways veteran musicians strive to stay fresh and maintain their careers over the long haul. His thoughts were prompted by the recent releases of new songs from Tom Jones, Jackson Browne and John Mayer, each of whom could said to be possess a signature sound. Here's Tom Jones and a song from his new album, "Surrounded By Time."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TOM JONES: (Singing) Yes, I'm going to be a pop star. Yes, I'm going to be a pop star now. Yes, I'm going to be a pop star. Whoa, mama, mama see me, mama, mama see me, I'm a pop star.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: It's the quandary faced by anyone with a long career in music - do I create new material that explores new territory, keep stretching and risk alienating the audience that gave me this long career, or do I give them variations on more of the same? It's a tricky situation. For example, many musicians have a signature sound - the ache in a certain tone of voice, the twang of a certain guitar riff, the pulse quickening of a certain tempo. I'll give you my first example, Tom Jones and his cover of "No Hole In My Head," a folk tune by the singer-songwriter Malvina Reynolds, which Tom Jones has thoroughly Tom Jones-ified.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO HOLE IN MY HEAD")
JONES: (Singing) Everybody thinks my head's full of nothing. They want to put their own special stuff in, fill up the space with candy wrappers. Keep out sex and revolution. But there's no hole in my head. Too bad. They call me a dupe for this and the other, call me a puppet on a string. They don't know my head's full of me and that I have my own special thing. And there's no hole in my head. Too bad.
TUCKER: Tom Jones turned 81 this past June, and his voice still sounds amazingly strong. It possesses much of the brawniness we heard on "It's Not Unusual," Jones's first hit in 1965. Jones, in his fourth collaboration with producer Ethan Johns, sparks his career by covering recent or obscure songs with contemporary arrangements. Another voice that is immediately recognizable, as is the instrumentation surrounding it, is Jackson Browne on his new single, "My Cleveland Heart."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CLEVELAND HEART")
JACKSON BROWNE: (Singing) I'm going to make a few changes right away - the way I leap and the way I fall, the way I need somebody else's eyes on me, the way I need anyone at all. But I expect the real changes to start when I finally get my Cleveland heart. They're made to take a bashing and never lose their passion. They never break. They don't even beat. And they don't ache. They just plug in and shine. Don't make mistakes. And they don't know defeat. Like my heart makes, like this broken heart of mine.
TUCKER: "My Cleveland Heart" would not have sounded out of place on a classic 1970s Jackson Browne album such as "The Pretender" or "Late For The Sky." There's none of the sort of modernizing in the production that Tom Jones does. Browne makes sure that the slide guitar sounds as much like the one David Lindley played behind him 40 some years ago, because Jackson knows that's as much of a trademark as his own voice.
Browne has spent most of the 21st century trying to find new themes and avenues for his songwriting, and not much of it has worked. "My Cleveland Heart" may be a surrender to his old style, but what a glowing, lively surrender it is. Another musician who features an instantly recognizable guitar sound is John Mayer, at 43, the youngest of the old pros here whose new single "Last Train Home" is at once familiar and quite odd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST TRAIN HOME")
JOHN MAYER: (Singing) If you want to roll me, then you got to roll me all night long. And if you want to use me, then you got to use me till I'm gone. I'm not a fallen angel, I just fell behind. I'm out of luck. And I'm out of time. If you don't want to love me, let me go. I'm running for the last train. I'm running for the last train home.
TUCKER: On "Last Train Home," John Mayer sounds like he's found a time portal back to 1982, where he could front the band Toto in a possible follow-up to their hit "Africa." Except this is a wittier piece of music than anything Toto ever did. It's Gen X nostalgia with chilly synthesizers swirling around his plaintive vocal. Mayer has spent much of the last decade on the road with members of the Grateful Dead, but it's clear he wants to reclaim some pop star swagger on this new song. Like Tom Jones and Jackson Browne, he's looking back to move forward, hoping you'll be both comforted and excited to hear new variations on old sounds.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed new songs by Tom Jones, Jackson Browne and John Mayer. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, like Terry's conversation with Uzo Aduba, who stars in the HBO series "In Treatment," or our interview with historian Michael Dobbs about a critical period in the Watergate scandal, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.