An album’s worth of Jones’ luxuriance is somewhat rough going.
Andrew Mueller 2009-11-13
Norah Jones always seemed almost unfairly equipped to survive the inexorable attrition that mows down legions of her fellow female singer-songwriters: young (23 at the release of her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me), beautiful, possessed of a lovely husky drawl and an appealingly picturesque back-story (Ravi Shankar is by now resigned to being recalled principally as Jones’ father, rather than as the world’s best-known sitarist). Jones didn’t merely survive, of course – her three albums to date have shifted 36 million copies. In today’s climate, that seems as miraculous and unfathomable as a seeing someone walking a brachiosaurus.
In this context, it would be easy to be cynical about this fourth album. To the limited extent that it has hitherto been possible to object to Jones, it has been on the grounds that she errs towards the inoffensive – or, more bluntly, that her sensationally profitable records are duller than the side-salads at the dinner parties for which they serve as soundtracks. The Fall seems a carefully plotted attempt to confront this reputation for cosiness. Ryan Adams and Okkervill River’ s Will Sheff are recruited as collaborators, and Marc Ribot – best known for his fraught guitar-playing with Tom Waits – is enlisted in the backing band.
The result, at the risk of damning with faint praise, is Jones’ most interesting album – but it is, like its predecessors, a martyr to her overweening tastefulness. The Adams collaboration, Light as a Feather, tries nervously to be a Mazzy Star-style torch ballad, pawing the line between intimacy and claustrophobia, but Jones sighs where she should seethe. Stuck, co-written with Sheff, should sound driven to distraction, but instead sounds merely distracted. Her own compositions suffer similarly: It’s Gonna Be is a Glitter Band stomp done tiptoe, You’ve Ruined Me a country-ish waltz oozing none of the blood and tears that soak the best of the genre. It’s only on the ruthlessly realistic wishlist Man of the Hour that she seems to relax: it’s both affecting and gently hilarious, and her best vocal on the album.
Jones’ inherent languor has wrought marvels – the version of Hank Williams’ Cold, Cold Heart on Come Away With Me and the reading of Townes Van Zandt’s Be Here To Love Me on 2004’s Feels Like Home both benefited from their counter-intuitive coolness. Not for the first time, though, an album’s worth of Jones’ luxuriance is somewhat rough going.