“The Fall” (Blue Note) -- 3.5 STARS
If Norah Jones’ voice were perfect—if she always used the same silky smooth tone she so effortlessly commands—she might be boring. But fortunately, every so often the singer slips into something more comfortable—a coarse and breathy style—just to remind us that she is as down-to-earth as her lyrics imply. From great stylistic and emotional range, her voice derives a unique charm.
Thus it is entirely baffling why, on so many of the tracks on her latest album “The Fall,” Jones denies her voice the limelight. In the process of musical experimentation, she appears to have forgotten her greatest strengths as an artist. In the past, Jones found her home in the sultry intersection of country and jazz, but unfortunately her first forays into the realm of rock meet with varied success on “The Fall,” where at certain points she completely drowns her silken voice in awkwardly abrasive electronic chords.
In the past, Jones has showcased her jazzy vocals over simple accompaniments. On “Come Away With Me,” winner of the 2003 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, and 2005 Grammy nominee “Feels Like Home,” she masterfully combined minimalist keyboard and guitar work with pensive lyrics and lilting melodies. To a certain extent, the singer-songwriter continues in this vein on her latest album.
The sweet and melancholic tension of “Waiting,” for example, comes through in some persistent guitar chords and a little tinkling on the piano. Jones’ signature hum returns, too, as she thinks to herself: “If I wait, it doesn’t mean you will return.” “December,” too, radiates warmth like a Christmas carol; Jones’ comforting humanity radiates through the song in her more earthen style.
These pieces are all the more welcome, however, in light of the more uncomfortable tracks on the album. “It’s Gonna Be” sounds like a retrospective attempt at the very worst type of classic rock, including repetitive lyrics, insipid rhymes and lack of chord progression. “If all we talk about is money nothing will be funny, honey,” Jones warbles. Nothing of the singer’s nuanced vocals can be distinguished over the heavy-handed electric undercurrent.
Likewise, the corrosive twangs behind “I Wouldn’t Need You” overpower its vocals. In this particular ill-advised attempt to create a fusion of rock and jazz—platitudes thrown somewhat haphazardly over an oddly insistent and plodding background—Jones incorporates several upsetting and nonsensical chords at the song’s climax.
Still, when she more carefully considers the effect of synthetic chords on her generally soft melodies, Jones puts the electric guitar to better use. The leadoff track, “Chasing Pirates,” uses a repeated electric tag and a harsher drumbeat to emphasize the claustrophobic redundancy of circular thoughts and dreams. “And I try not to dream but them possible schemes swim around / wanna drown me in synch,” she sings. Somehow, too, “Back to Manhattan” sounds like pure jazz—like Jones at her best way back when—while also incorporating the wistful moan of an electric guitar. The song seems to resonate in a void, as Jones admits “I know nothing ’bout leaving but I know I should do it today.”
“Young Blood” also stands out as an example of a successful experiment; Jones balances heavier electronics with a simple drumbeat. The powerful melody, hearkening back to the best of U2 or Coldplay, is refreshing for a jazz vocalist, but it’s hard not to wonder if Jones could do the song better in her own acoustic way. The same goes for “Light as a Feather,” which comes off as a compelling tune with a worrying background whine.
It would be unfair, however, to say that Jones has not undergone any developments since the relatively dry and disappointing “Not Too Late” (2007). Back then, the artist’s hackneyed attempts at political humor left something to be desired. But Jones’ own brand of humor shines through on “The Fall” more than any other album. In “Tell Yer Mama,” she coolly exhorts an ex-lover to “tell your mama I said hello, / that she raised you—[pause]—too damn slow.” She remains deliciously calm throughout the bitter piece. Similarly, in “Man of the Hour,” she expresses shock that she may actually settle with one man for even just an hour—after overcoming the feeling that she “can’t choose between a vegan and a pothead.”
“The Fall” can be seen as a kind of cautionary tale. The singer-songwriter may not be cut out for rock ballads, and her voice does not integrate well with overeager electronics and heavy drumbeats. But she has her vocal powers and lyrical allure of years past and this album reminds us that she can still persuade listeners to come away with her.
—Staff writer Antonia M.R. Peacocke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.