[15 December 2009]
The transformation is complete. Norah Jones, the golden girl of Blue Note records and queen of the adult pop-jazz crossover field, after selling millions of records and being hailed as the torchbearer bringing vocal jazz back into the mainstream, has re-emerged as a singer-songwriter with an album full of guitar-driven pop-soul. Nowhere on The Fall will you hear anything like “Don’t Know Why”, “Come Away with Me”, or “What Am I to You”? Gone is the warm blanket of delicate drums and piano, replaced with snares that actually hit and lightly-buzzing electronic keyboards.
“Chasing Pirates” prods along with Al Green’s thump and keyboards straight out of the Billy Preston school. The whirring noises of “Even Though”, hazy tremolo on “Young Blood”, and the meandering “Light as a Feather” create an effect that many of the faithful listeners of the early days will find unsettling. “Waiting” will likely leave listeners eagerly leaning forward in their chairs toward the speakers—or pressing their headphones a bit tighter—hoping that something will happen. And then it’s over.
However, tracks like “I Wouldn’t Need You”, “You’ve Ruined Me”, and “Back to Manhattan” gingerly step back into the wistful territory of Come Away with Me and Feels Like Home, yet somehow still feel removed from the albums that elevated her to the top of her field. The trademark instrumentation and arrangements of the 2002 and 2004 discs are absent—it still has that late-night feel, but in a much different vein.
Is that a distorted guitar on “Stuck”? And what are those strange, hypnotic washes of keyboard doing there? Does this… rock? Almost—the band can’t quite shake off their restraints and completely cut loose. But then there’s a return to the mellow approach with “December”, which might have been a fan favorite, had it been Jones alone on piano, rather than on guitar; but the hopeful lyric makes it endearing and stands among her best tracks.
A Beatles-bounce pushes “Tell Yer Mama” along with more muddled guitars, and “Man of the Hour” sounds like a major-key update of “Sinkin’ Soon”, the best track from her underrated 2007 release Not Too Late. Slightly playful and perhaps the most “comfortable” shift in sound, the lyric has changed from a quirky, clever, and campy riff on oyster crackers, sugar cubes, and sinking boats (with a wacky muted trumpet sounding the alarm) to a swooning statement about a dog. It’s a cute stab at writing an ode to a canine companion masked as a love song, but “Martha My Dear” makes it difficult for anyone to do so successfully.
Although she’s shed the studio sheen of her first two discs, Jones still seems to be searching for her voice—and who can blame her? Not Too Late was produced in a home studio and introduced a rawness into her sound that hadn’t been present before, and while it possessed its share of sleepy moments, it still topped the polished and scrubbed tunes that were omnipresent seven years ago when she first captured million of listeners across the world. It was the sound of an artist trying to figure out where to go next—and often times, song-sketches turn out to be far more intriguing than those labored over for hours.
And between covering Wilco tunes at festivals, donning creepy eye makeup, and strapping on an electric guitar, it’s clear that the songstress is itching to explore more ground. On The Fall, “It’s Gonna Be” includes a choice lyric: “And now that everyone’s a critic, it’s makin’ my mascara runny”—but is Jones really concerned about the skewering she may receive for straying so far from what made her a star? Most likely not—this is the most sure-footed in a series of steps she’s been taking to ditch the dreamy, Downy-soft vibe of her early releases—but it hasn’t resulted in her strongest effort.