Ever since 2002; U.S. singer-songwriter Norah Jones has provided the world her inimitable blend of smooth, caramel-rich vocals and engrossing music. Her debut (Come Away with Me) announced a rare and stunning talent to the music world. Subsequent albums tried to break away from the piano-driven sound of that debut and embrace different styles and sounds. On October 7th, Day Breaks will be released and returns to the dynamic and feel of her earlier work. Consisting nine new songs and three cover versions: the album cover sees Jones shot in sepia tones – surrounded by an orange border – and providing the camera a sullen, romantic look. Flipside and Carry On have provided a taste of what to expect and it sounds like Jones is rekindling rare form – after a couple of rather underwhelming albums. The Metropolist takes a look at the 37-year-old, nine-time Grammy-winning New Yorker and rates her back catalogue – deciding the delectable from the dodgy.
#5 – Not Too Late (2007)
After two highly-rated albums from Norah Jones: Not Too Late signalled her weakest release to date. Lee Alexander – songwriter and bassist on her first two albums – sat in the producer’s chair and ensured the album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Marking the third number one from Jones: it can hardly be considered a commercial failure by anyone’s standards. Whilst not as alluring, consistent and solid as her first two albums: the album did fare well in the charts and proved how agile and solid a songwriter Jones was. She wrote most of the songs whilst touring during 2004-’05; Until the End was written in the South Pacific whereas Rosie’s Lullaby was created in Australia – Brazil was the inspiration behind The Sun Doesn’t Like You. The album has that sense of internationally and cosmopolitanism – a blend of the exotic, homely and sun-drenched.
Jones carried an acoustic guitar on tour – noting how much more portable it was compared to a piano – and songs took form in various countries. With Alexander tweaking and streamlining the album’s lyrics – putting them into shape and fleshing them out – Not Too Late was recorded in Jones’ home studio – the first album not to feature long-time producer Arif Mardin. Blue Note Records were unaware a new album was taking shape as a lot of the recording sessions were spur-of-the-moment and loose. That sense of relaxation and going with the flow feeds into an album with a breeziness, sense of fun and great experimentation. Perhaps not as defined and instant as Come Away with Me: Not Too Late’s songs have twists and turns; the piano and organs take a back seat whilst – piano still loud in the mix – whereas guitar provides the rhythmic drive and heartbeat.
Plenty of dark shades and raw emotions come out; Jones’ voice the star of the show and always capable of grabbing attention and focus. Quaint and feel-good in places; more raw and emotional in others: an album that possessed various shades and stories; touching and immersive throughout. Whilst there were quite a few filler tracks on the album; Jones’ maturation as a songwriter as evident. Gone was the rather vulnerable and ingénue heroine of her debut – replaced by a strong-willed woman who was capable of subtlety but knew an evolution and growth was needed. A little predictable and stilted in places; rather stodgy in others – not as arresting and unexpected as her debut album. Although Not Too Late was a sale success; it was followed by much stronger work that did full justice to Jones’ multiple talents and strengths.
#4 – Little Broken Hearts (2012)
Similar to albums like Not Too Late; Little Broken Hearts enjoyed a rather secretive and cloistered germination. In June 2009, Jones began to jam and experiment with the songs that would go onto her fifth album. Unsatisfied by those initial sessions, she began working on other projects: not only recording her fourth album; she worked on side projects whilst Dangermouse (her producer) produced The Black Keys’ album, El Camino. Shortly after the 2011 sessions for the album Rome; the duo headed to the studio to work on the record. After breaking up with her fiction-writer boyfriend, there was a rawness and heartbreak to the songs Jones brought into the studio. More hurt and scarred than ever before: a new direction and more ravaged sound from Norah Jones. Realising the old adage to be true – you write better songs when heartbroken – in the wake of a harsh break-up followed some of the strongest material of her career.
The cover art for Little Broken Hearts is cinematic and vivid. Inspired by the poster for the 1965 film Mudhoney – with a little bit of Sin City’s colour-black-and-white aesthetic – it signals a less coquettish and playful soul. Inspired by the film poster – Jones would stare at it every day whilst at Dangermouse’s studio – the inspiration and entrance of that image went into Jones’ new material. Sometimes deeply personal; others hiding behind a persona – critics were fast in noting the bond and natural chemistry between Jones and Dangermouse. The songs tackled pain yet the production offered it disguise and sculpture. The most primal and powerful collection Jones has committed to disc: many were thrilled by the energy and commanding music; dynamic and assured and not allowing heartache to sound depressive and suffocating. Plenty of light and twinkle emerges throughout and (Little Broken Hearts) is a serious, cross-genre album that has no borders and limitations.
If Jones’ debut was seen (incorrectly) as pure jazz then Little Broken Hearts broke from that mould and resonated with serious fans of indie – those who prefer their music interesting and complicated. The complexities and layers of Little Broken Heart that saw it taken to heart. Some critics were eager to label the album boring and bland whilst others commended Jones on her transition from coffee shop background artist to a dramatic and intriguing Muse. Many heartbreak records can sound too intense and personal – not willing to engage the listener or offer any relief. Cathartic and peaceful throughout – Jones proves you can go through a break-up and document it with plenty of fascination, life and quality. If the end-of-a-relationship record was not her strongest record: it proves Norah Jones was hard to pin down and fully capable of subverting expectations.
#3 – The Fall (2009)
Following Not Too Late’s mixed reviews; Jones decided to experiment with new collaborators and mix her styles up. Jacquire King (producer for Kings of Leon and Tom Waits) and Modest Mouse were employed; Ryan Adams, Will Sheff and Jesse Harris utilised as songwriters – a new line-up to help progress her music and bring new life and meaning to her work. Not only were new producers and writers discovered but musicians like Joey Waronker (drummer with R.E.M. and Beck), James Gadson (Bill Withers) and guitarist Marc Ribot. The album’s cover finds Jones dressed in white with a top hat sat with a St. Bernard’s. Photographed by Autumn de Wilde and signifying a bolder, less predictable artists: your eye and imagination is captured before you hear a note of the album. Perhaps unsatisfied with her previous work and its limitations: The Fall is less guarded and more expansive than previous work; the kick and evolution that Jones needed.
Gone was the pining and wistful tones of Come Away with Me and replaced with a very different songwriter. Love songs were provided more drama and sexuality; emotional devastation and loss more heightened and direct – many noted she was indie-goth and a lot more grown-up. Whereas Jones’ debut was her most celebrated work; many critics and fans preferred her with a bit more attack, colour and adventure. The music (on this album) was more varied and backed with rich production values. In the early days, there was a certain control exerted by the label and backers. Jones was guided and moulded to be a musician they wanted to hear; someone who would sell well and not offend. The Fall is the first real expression of an artist making up her own mind and following her own intuitions. Hot-blooded and soulful; party-like and exhilarating – quite a turnaround and departure from an artist many felt they had pegged.
If some disagreed with Jones’ decision to abandon the keys for guitars; there were those who celebrated her move and felt it was long overdue. The Fall was not a complete about-face and still offered elements of the jazz diva many fell in love with seven years previous. In terms of detractions; there was a feeling Jones’ voice was too polite and well-mannered: contrasted against a rather dirty and loose morals set of compositions. Some of the scores and songs do not hit the mark and are misjudged but The Fall is an improvement from her weaker (later) albums. There were little glimmers of rock but, by and large, The Fall was a predictably comfortable album but one where the singer was willing to take more risks and take chances – even if some of them did not pay off.
#2 – Feels Like Home (2004)
After the monumental success of Come Away with Me there was a lot of pressure and focus put on to Norah Jones. Not quite as delightful and entrancing as that debut; Feels Like Home did get nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards. Lead single Sunrise won the award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance – Creepin’ In (with Dolly Parton) was nominated for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals at the ceremony. It is not shocking those award recognitions arrived as Feels Like Home is an apt title. Continuing from Come Away with Me and containing many of the same themes and sounds – a collection of beautifully immersive songs and easy-to-listen-to gems. There were some throwaways and filler but even those had their high-points and stood up to repeated listens.
That sultry and knee-buckling voice is at its peak and makes every track (on Feels Like Home) resonate and seduce. Jones, on her sophomore album, reached for more and took her voice in new directions. That grasp and ambition pleased existing fans and ensured new one were brought in. More loose and rousing than her debut; there were fewer piano bar tracks and more depth in the music. Dark and light shades and a woman not willing to kowtow to celebrity – a pure musician building from her solid foundations and ensuring she does not simply repeat her debut. Those looking for a rock chick or a balls-to-the-wall album were to be disappointed. Jones’ music is refined and conservative but fully capable of digging into the soul and evoking hidden emotions – many critics were looking for too much and radical changes from an artist who did not need to conform to their ideals.
The vocal, like Come Away with Me, is at the forefront and the most striking takeaway. Duke Ellington’s instrumental Melancholia s retitled Don’t’ Miss You at All and is as defiant and unconcerned as the title – someone pleased to be rid of the guy and happy with the newfound freedom. Whereas her debut was indebted to jazz; on her second album there was a bigger nod to country music. One of the biggest criticism levied at the album was the pleasantness and purity – not quite befitting of the subject matter and the drama they convey. At 24, it was understandable Jones would not be able to muster gritty, whiskey-soaked experience. What Feels Like Home provided was an excellent continuation of her debut and a fine collection of songs from an extraordinarily promising talent. Perfect music for those looking to escape and disconnect from the world: few artists (even now) do that as well as Norah Jones.
#1 – Come Away with Me (2002)
This is where it all began and the album that contained Don’t Know Why – the song we associate with Jones and what she is all about. Don’t Know Why was a huge breakthrough track on an album that topped many critics’ end-of-year lists. The album picked up eight Grammys and was certified Diamond in 2005 having sold over 10 million copies. As of 2012, the album reached the 26 million copies mark and is one of the biggest-selling debut albums ever. The strength of Come Away with Me is exemplified in its title. Jones wants to take the listener with her and into her world. Whereas Jones would write and co-write most of the songs on later work; on Come Away with Me, the writing duties were largely shared by her guitarist Jesse Harris and bassist Lee Alexander. Simple melodies and gorgeous vocals defined an album that was quick to register with the public and achieve huge acclaim.
The album went to number 37 in the German charts and stayed in the charts for 141 weeks. A worldwide smash that heralded an alluring and rare talent. A few of Come Away With Me’s songs felt ineffective given the abiding, one-dimensional mood but what remained was Jones’ incredible voice and enticing personality. It is the intimacy, warmth and reflectiveness that shines bright and keeps you coming back. Some of Jones’ later albums didn’t have that nuance and long-term appeal – Come Away with Me is worthy of multiple listens and deep investigation. Being 22 at the time of release: the maturity, intelligence and sophistication. Her phrasing and performances are the envy of her peers and should have come from a much older performance – her cadence, timbre and timing is impeccable throughout.
Cover versions Cold Cold Heart (Hank Williams), Turn Me On (J.D. Loudermilk) and The Nearness of You (Hoagy Carmichael) are made her own and given new lease and relevance. Perhaps too gentle for some people’s tastes: Come Away with Me is a record that gets inside the soul and keeps releasing bursts of pleasure and sunshine at unexpected moments; a slow-release bomb of music that gets into every corner of the psyche. Whether hooked by the drum brushes and authentic jazz of Don’t’ Know Why or the alternative-cum-jazz blends of Lonestar – one of the more contemporary cuts on the record – you will be drawn and seduced. A cool, assured and stunning debut from the young Jones: Come Away with Me showed jazz-influenced artists were capable of immense power and relevance. Not an L.P. confined to lovers of the genre and niche concerns; it is a treasure that sold in droves and proved Norah Jones was a bona fide mainstream star.