The Fall •••½
In 2002 you couldn’t draw breath while watching commercial TV without exposure to an advert for Norah Jones’s debut album Come Away With Me. With an interesting back story (she’s the daughter of the world’s most famous sitar player, Ravi Shankar), a mellow pop-jazz sound that offended no one, and a voice that was the aural equivalent of a multi-functional soothing lozenge, she eased her effortless way into dinner party ubiquity like a side salad and a bottle of Rioja. This grated parmesan of an artist seemed fitting for an era of economic confidence and contemporary apartment blocks in every city centre. Filed a few places along from David Gray in the collections of people who buy their CDs in Tesco, by all rights she ought to be sounding a little tired now the economic bubble has burst and those apartment blocks stand half empty; there is only so much coffee-table jazz a global recession can justify.
Quite the contrary it seems. Fourth album The Fall finds Jones full of opinions and making some new friends. If not exactly what you’d called challenging, it’s another step in the imperceptible progression she’s been making from her debut. And this times it’s personal. Her long-time backing band are gone, along with her relationship with former bassist and co-writer Lee Alexander. In their place come a crew of session musicians with an impressive pedigree, including the legendary James Gadson (Bill Withers, Al Green, Herbie Hancock) on drums, Marc Ribot (Tom Waits) and Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash) on guitars, and songwriting collaborations with Ryan Adams and Will Sheff of Okkervil River. What’s more there’s a new love in her life, her dependable St. Bernard dog who not only gets a song about his consistency compared with two-legged menfolk, but also gets featured on the cover.
The old Jones hasn’t been completely vanquished though. Along with the two openers, ‘Chasing Pirates’ and ‘Even Though’, ‘Back To Manhattan’ could easily have sat on her debut. It deals with her relationship breakdown head on, a languid, jazzy New-York-by-night number that sees the growing distance between herself and her former partner in the geography of the city. If Brooklyn is where love led her, the place her former lover felt most at home, then Manhattan is where she feels she belongs. It might not be an intercontinental move, but crossing the bridge is all about reclaiming something of herself.
That reclamation of self applies to her music as well. She has spoken in interviews about how it has taken her time to work out exactly what kind of music she really wanted make and what songs she needed to write, and the real Norah Jones is perhaps a lot more artistically honest than her previous work might have suggested. On the Will Sheff co-write ‘Stuck’ she’s darkly drunk on a night out gone wrong and staggering home alone to a rhythmic woozy guitar riff. In ‘December’, she’s lonely and bereft. It’s as fragile and crystalline as a frosty morning in leaf-stripped forest, a dignified waltz through a saddened year’s end.
There’s a touch of Southern country on the Johnny Cash recalling ‘Tell Yer Mama’, a straightforward see-if-I-care riposte to a boy raised “too damn slow” and “too damn wrong” that grooves along with a trundle of nifty drum work, Jones’s syrupy vocal riding above the bass with a swagger and a too-late invitation to swoon. ‘The Man Of The Hour’ chosen over a pothead and a vegan is her sweet, loving, definitely meat-eating, four-legged cover star. He may never bring her flowers, but a lie never crosses his lips and he’s refreshingly free of baggage. The loyal doe-eyed affections of a devoted canine companion are the perfect contrast to the inconsistencies of love and a reflection of the singer’s new spirit. At 30, she’s nobody’s fool and knows who her friends are.
Growing up in public can be tricky, but Norah Jones seems to have got it about right with an accomplished mixture of self-revelation, determination and humour, alongside a skilful musical evolution that should keep her old audience on side whilst gently expanding the expectations of what she’s about. The Fall was never likely to shake the foundations or break new ground, but in her own understated way she proves there’s more to her than earlier prejudice might suggest. It might be an odd conclusion to reach about someone on their fourth album who achieved such dramatic early success, but Norah Jones is very much an artist in the making.
UK release date: 16/11/09; www.myspace.com/norahjones
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