[30 April 2012]
When Norah Jones was first unleashed onto the world, we were given every indication that her career would take a similar path of so many other “lite” female singer/songwriters (i.e. Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, and Tori Amos). Right from the get-go Jones was a smooth jazzy scene-stealer, musing through oversimplified sentiments of lovelorn and seemingly bad decisions that she really didn’t regret (as is the case in “Don’t Know Why” from her album Come Away with Me). She attempted to duplicate the success of her major label debut with an equally nauseating album filled with songs about sunshine and smiles. Many relegated her to typical Lilith Fair fare, possessing great talent, but never singing anything worth significance and never chancing her characteristic style with obscure production risks. Almost everything sounded live-to-tape with a boringly assembled band: Jones on piano, with one bassist, a couple of guitarists, someone on drums and the occasional backup vocal. Nice and simple and safe.
It wasn’t until 2009’s The Fall that Ms. Jones decided to step out of her comfort zone, collaborating with a variety of harder-edged musicians and stepping out of her all-too-familiar jazz pop style. Jones was beginning to declare herself not simply a “jazz artist”, but an “artist”. This trend to steer herself wherever her heart may take her and leaving behind the confessional singer/songwriter trope, has continued in her fifth album Little Broken Hearts. Collaborated and produced with Brian Burton (known to you as Danger Mouse), Little Broken Hearts is a stylistic and intriguing entry into this talented singer’s catalogue, one that hopefully paves a direction rather than merely being a benchmark in her short but impressive career. Perhaps the reason why Little Broken Hearts is the least like a typical Norah Jones album has something to do with the auspicious nature of the album’s inception. Instead of coming to the recording sessions with completed songs and full band arrangements ready, Jones and Burton reportedly collaborated on a number of tracks building them from the ground up as they were being recorded.
Little Broken Hearts begins at the beginning. “Good Morning” is a beautiful album opener, atmospheric enough that as the opening guitars begin to flutter you can picture a slow sunrise shining through a kitchen window as the narrator in the song (who has been up all night) waits for her lover to return from his overnight escapades. Resolving herself to finally leave him, “Good Morning” sets a precise and eerie tone to the remainder of the album, which doesn’t necessarily follow any kind of linear narrative. Rather, it is a culmination of similarly themed songs tied together by the complexities and contradictory emotions that arise in the wake of a broken heart, or conversely, breaking someone’s heart.
Jones is smart enough not to re-name her collaboration with Burton as non-reflective of her characteristic style (see, for instance, Broken Bells). Because for all of Little Broken Hearts’ attempt to catapult Norah from her comfort zone, there is no denying that it is still, very much a Norah Jones album. Her PR management likes to think that the variance on Heart is so extreme that they can justifiably refer to the track “Say Goodbye” as “high-energy”. It might be “high-energy” for Ms. Jones, but not to the rest of the world. In fact, for all the chances that Jones takes on this album, they all still remain within her own abilities to take those chances so far. Never once does she break the 90 bpm time scale, nor does she really rock out on songs that might have given naysayers pause otherwise. It’s admirable that she is pushing her own already tight boundaries, but comparatively speaking, there is nothing on Little Broken Hearts that would suggest a brave departure from an already tried and true style. She isn’t pulling a Kid A here.
This lack of true ingenuity on Jones’ part isn’t necessarily a bad thing. She is pushing the self-constructed limitations of her style, which she molded years ago, and though this may be enough to keep loyal fans interested in her, it will surely do nothing to generate or convert those who are familiar with Jones and have already dismissed her. These “non-believers” if you will, know that there really isn’t that much that is new here. It takes a special kind of artist to pull off a varied album that transcends an artist’s own style in enough of a way to draw in those that aren’t currently listening (see Beck’s Sea Change or Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree).
Regardless of this non-conversion however, Little Broken Hearts is a stand-out in Jones’ limited repertoire. Tracks like “Say Goodbye” (although it’s not as high-energy as her PR team would like to think it is), “Happy Pills”, and “Out on the Road” showcase what Jones can do when she’s pushed slightly to think outside her tiny box, while tracks like “Good Morning”, “Take it Back” and “Travelin’ On” are some of the finest Norah Jones songs that stick to the jazz/pop trope she’s carved out for herself. The album as a whole is best digested in one sitting. Jones has always been masterful at lyrical content and subdued vocal delivery and there is plenty of that here. However, instead of picking apart the tracks that work best, the entire album plays like a cohesive whole, somehow frayed and fragmented if not left intact.