Norah Jones returns to her roots on her latest album with mixed results.
To a certain extent, Norah Jones’s debut album, Come Away With Me, would be as much of a curse as it was a gift. While immensely successful as it rode on the wave of adult contemporary jazz-pop that was flourishing at the time with the likes of John Mayer, it also painted Norah Jones as a jazz vocalist with no room for much else. As the years went by, Mayer was able to incorporate blues, country, and folk into his musical repertoire with ease, but Jones would never be able to match the overwhelming success of Come Away With Me. On Day Breaks, however, Norah Jones finally returns to fish from the same well that made her debut so excellent, and regains some of the magic she lost within the past decade.
Now, Day Breaks is by no means a carbon copy of Come Away With Me, and its best moments don’t hold a candle to the worst from its predecessor, but that’s to be expected. It is simply impossible to replicate the sheer simplistic beauty of a song like “Don’t Know Why”, or the masterful guitar work in “Seven Years”. Instead, Jones’s latest album takes comfort in returning to the singer’s musical beginnings, as shown through songs like “Burn”, “Sleeping Wild” and “It’s a Wonderful Time For Love”, songs that sound like the New Yorker created them and performed them in her living room. They’re intimate and moving, especially as the deep acoustic bass lines complement Jones’s mature, emotional-yet-controlled singing style.
Other highlights include the title track and “Don’t Be Denied”, the latter of which is one of three cover songs here. Both are solid piano ballads that give the album much needed energy, and Jones has an interesting twist on the Neil Young cover by singing in the perspective of a woman instead of a man. Similarly, “Day Breaks” gains its substance via a warm horn solo on the back end of the song that carries the track to a warm and calming resolution. It’s through songs like these where one realizes that Norah Jones still has the vocals, talent and musicianship that she did when she released her first album.
The other two covers, “Peace” and “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)”, though, are not nearly as good as “Don’t Be Denied”, and feel superfluous and unnecessary within the album. The former is long, winding and melodic, a nice and delicate song but one that lacks the substance of the other tracks on the album. “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower)” suffers from this same issue, except Norah Jones doesn’t even sing on the song, and opts instead to close her album with an instrumental that could never compete with Ellington’s original, no matter how hard it tries. Ironically, “Carry On”, the second-to-last song on the album, would have been the perfect closer to Day Breaks as organs play behind Jones’s powerful vocals. While Day Breaks can be relaxing at times, it also borders on being sloppy on rare occasions such as these.
There are a couple more instances of sloppy perfomances in Day Breaks, most notably in “Tragedy” and “Once I Had A Laugh”. Even though “Tragedy” is a solid song musically, the repetitive and dull nature of the lyrics drags it down. “Once I Had A Laugh”, on the other hand, feels like a light breeze. It may provide a nice, momentary feeling of bliss, but it is ultimately inconsequential and forgettable.
It would be remiss to dismiss this album as a mere copycat of one of its predecessors. There are some moments, especially on the cover songs, where Norah Jones tries to explore new territory, and for that, I commend her. But for all her exploration and discovery, it is ultimately by following her jazz-pop roots that she enchants and captivates her audience the most. Sometimes, the best plan is simply to stick to what you know.