It’s been a decade since Norah Jones won the hearts of coffeehouse sippers and dinner party hosts with her enchanting debut album Come Away With Me. And in the intervening decade, Jones has taken a surprisingly experimental approach as a musician, releasing a string of solo albums that, while never quite living up to the promise of her diamond-certified debut, worked quite well while expanding and modifying her sound.
Added into the mix are two fantastic albums with her roots country band The Little Willies, a duets album that included pairings with such diverse artists as Talib Kweli and Dolly Parton, and collaborations on Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi‘s spaghetti western-inspired 2011 album Rome. This last one must have made an impact on Jones artistically because Danger Mouse – aka Brian Burton – produced Jones’ new album, Little Broken Hearts, and his pop-perfect fingerprints are all over it.
Burton is perhaps the hottest producer going in indie-pop today, having worked recently with U2, The Black Keys and Beck, among others. And the marriage of Burton’s production to Jones’ smoky, sultry, perfectly phrased vocal delivery is something of a marvel. Jones still tinkles the ivories with the best of them, but the piano is far from central in Burton’s arrangements, populated as they are with guitars, synthesizers, strings, plucked bass, and driving drums. Little Broken Hearts is certainly the best of both worlds – coffeehouse jazz meets indie pop – but the question remains as to whether Jones will find support amongst the reserved ranks of supermarket adult contemporary shoppers or the more progressively minded Neko Case and Feist lovers of the skewed and fragmented indie-pop world.
Early on, Jones was perhaps unfairly dubbed “Snorah Jones” by some snarks, and it seems that her trajectory over her first decade has been a calculated attempt to outrun that signifier, but there is also the distinct feeling that Jones is not singing for anyone but herself, and there is something marvellously singular and removed about her songwriting and performances. Her songs are confessional to a degree, but there is also the sense that as she has progressed as an artist. Jones – only aged 22 when Come Away With Me was released – has been working through her own issues on record, and the result is a satisfying sense of both maturity and calculated playfulness, lovelorn loss and twisted revenge.
Little Broken Hearts – as its title suggests – is a breakup album by definition, but it is not a one-note downer. There are complex emotions at play here, like the visceral turn from the refrain in She’s 22 from “Does she make you happy?” to “I’d like to see you happy.” Opener Good Morning sets the scene, recounting the night-terror suspicions of a woman whose man has been out all night. More complex is the narrator in Miriam, who plots the death of her lover’s mistress, singing, “I’m gonna smile when I take your life.” All A Dream would not sound out of place performed by Elvis Costello and the title track shares a pounding, sweaty sense of tremolo-heavy atmospherics with most of David Lynch‘s Crazy Clown Time. Happy Pills bounds and jumps with a falsetto ear-worm melody not unlike the whistle in The Black Keys’ Tighten Up. Danger Mouse is exceedingly good at this sort of thing, and the album is dog-eared heavily with his influence. The production overall is not unlike his work on Rome, heavy with clean guitars and interlocking drums and bass, but it also pays homage to some of the finest producers working today – from T Bone Burnett to Rick Rubin – and Little Broken Hearts is a satisfyingly grown-up album in the best way possible.
Norah Jones continues to be a fascinating figure. While there’s plenty of room to call Little Broken Hearts a safe and unassuming album, or to cement and imprison Jones in the coffeehouses of her past, to do so would be more than a little unfair. There is a lot at play here, both sonically and lyrically, and the album rewards repeated listens. Most importantly, Little Broken Hearts is an album that just works. The team assembled here have done something quite remarkable, and this new-found partnership between Jones and Burton could perhaps lead to some very fine collaborations on future albums.