Norah Jones: “The Fall”
One could review Norah Jones’ fourth album, The Fall, simply by name-dropping all of its famous contributors– but that would be a bit misleading, and more than a little unfair to Jones. Yes, you’ve heard right: Jones co-wrote a song with Ryan Adams and another with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff; she enlisted producer Jacquire King, who has worked with Modest Mouse as well as Kings of Leon; and among her supporting musicians we find studio pros who have worked with R.E.M. and Beck, as well as Roots and Erykah Badu keyboardist James Poysner. It’s that last connection that proves most illuminating to what The Fall really is; it is Poysner’s funky keyboard vamp that opens the album and propels first song “Chasing Pirates,” setting the stage for an album that’s gently soulful, at once sounding quite different from Jones’ past albums without quite sounding like a full-on departure.
To be clear: No, Norah Jones has not made her indie rock album. In fact, she hasn’t made a rock album at all; this isn’t evolution so much as maturation, a record that moves her art forward without openly repudiating, or even totally rejecting, her cabaret jazz beginnings. What the album makes clear is that Jones wants to be– and deserves to be– taken seriously not just as a coffee house crooner but as a sophisticated singer/songwriter, and if Not Too Late suggested as much with its arty leanings, The Fall is an altogether more confident and clear-voiced recording, elegant and engaging without the tattered loose ends of its predecessor.
The most telling piece of casting news, actually, is not the presence of Adams and Sheff or even Poysner, but King; Jones said in interviews that she picked him because of the spacious, atmospheric sound he brought to Tom Waits‘ Mule Variations, a revealing point about where Jones’ tastes and ambitions lie. The Fall does indeed capture that album’s high-ceiling sound, but not its bluesier inclinations; this is a less visceral, more cerebral affair, a bed of acoustic guitars and beeping keyboards that gives the album a hazy sort of warmth, approximating the kind of arty vibe you might get from a Fiona Apple or Sam Phillips record but ultimately standing as something unique.
The sound of the record is atmospheric and relatively unobtrusive, creating a mood but leaving Jones herself to push the songs forward. And indeed, she is always at the fore– her singing and her lyrics, but rarely her piano playing– which is a bit of a gamble; Jones’ past albums have been memorable more for their sultriness and their mood than the songs themselves, but Jones takes her new surroundings as an opportunity to step forward, to sing and to write in her own voice. And she brings it: Forget Adams and Sheff, for the biggest songwriting story here is Jones herself, who writes with humor and compassion, personality and spunk, and a melodic elegance that makes the album immediately appealing as well as richly beautiful.
Essentially it’s a break-up album, but it’s personal not only in its subject matter, but also in how that subject matter is rendered. Fiona Apple chronicles a break-up with documentary-like detail and Sam Phillips uses it as a springboard for musings on God and the mysteries of grace, but Jones simply expresses herself with humor, imagination, and a kind of poetry that only exists in pop music. The album’s best song, “Young Blood,” is half Twlight and half True Blood with its supernatural imagery, “Stuck” is a tale of love and heartache told with winking humor and a smirk on the mouth but pain at its core, and “It’s Gonna Be” looks to cultural decay that is mirrored on the inside of the self. Other songs are more classicist relationship songs, but they’re smart, sometimes funny, and always moving.
The music mirrors the lyrics’ audacity, but, crucially, it’s never at the expense of Jones’ roots; no one who loved her first couple of albums should be turned off by the change-ups here, but many will come to respect Jones like never before for how elegantly she’s come into her own voice, with a little help from King. “Light as a Feather,” the Adams co-write, could almost pass for something off Heartbreaker, melodically speaking, but the dark tones of the cello that drive the song make it feel like something altogether more ominous. There are hints of funk in the keyboard vamps, and yes, “It’s Gonna Be” has a rattling drumline that sounds ever so slightly like a Tom Waits concoction.
But if all of this overplays the album’s artiness a bit, let it be said that, in a nutshell, this is very much a Norah Jones album– just a spectacularly good one, and one that absorbs all of her quirks and interests, not just her jazzy foundations but also the country leanings of Little Willies, her pop sensibilities and burgeoning songwriting skills, and even the looseness and humor she brough to El Madmo and her Lonely Island cameo. She’s made the move from retro-minded piano chanteusse to singer/songwriter with a voice all her own, but she hasn’t forgotten where she came from: The Fall is nothing is not melodic, immediate, and appealing in its smooth, mellow charm, which make its quiet innovations that much easier to rally behind– and that much more remarkable.