Sunday, September 16, 2012

Norah Jones Wants To Be A Pop Star (But Does Not Commit To It) On . . . Little Broken Hearts

The Good: Moments of voice, Moments of music
The Bad: No hooks, No lyrical standouts, Much more produced than prior works, Short.
The Basics: Ultimately, the real weakness of Norah Jones’s . . . Little Broken Hearts is that, after eight listens, I neither remember nor care about any of the tracks.

One of the dangers, I believe, of being a music reviewer in the way that I am is that familiarity breeds acceptance far more than contempt when it comes to music. I listen to each album I review at least eight times. This makes it so I am not bowled over by the initial listen (like many, many, music reviewers) and I can usually pick out elements beyond the surface listen to discuss in a work. I know that this insistence on multiple listens has weakened my resolve toward loathing some works that I had initially adverse reaction to – Britney Spears’s Femme Fatale (reviewed here!) comes instantly to mind as an example for that. So, more often than not, when I listen to an album over and over and over again, I start to like it more simply because it is more familiar than a shockingly new experience.

The opposite is the case with . . . Little Broken Hearts, the latest album by Norah Jones. Actually, it might not, technically, be “the opposite.” The fundamental problem with . . . Little Broken Hearts is that it is largely indistinct and lacks any real message which, fortunately, most of Jones’s earlier endeavors have possessed. Instead, . . . Little Broken Hearts is a mostly banal pop album with one or two more jazz-centered tracks thrown in, apparently to pay tribute to the fans who bought her early works (they stand out on . . . Little Broken Hearts like disco tracks on a rap album would). Instead of breeding familiarity and acceptance, multiple listens of . . . Little Broken Hearts made the album into an auditory sludge that made me care less about Norah Jones than I have since I first heard her first radio-played single.

With a dozen tracks clocking out at 45:01, is a more collaborative Norah Jones work than some of her prior ones. The songs were co-written by Norah Jones and Brian Burton, as opposed to being a solo series of Norah Jones’s personal expressions. Uncharacteristically, there are tracks (“After The Fall,” “Travelin’ On”) where Norah Jones only sings; she plays no instruments on those songs. She more than makes up for it on other songs. On . . . Little Broken Hearts, Norah Jones plays Rhodes, guitar, piano, bass, Wurlitzer, organ, acoustic guitar . . . and electric guitar. On . . . Little Broken Hearts, Norah Jones is aiming for more of a pop-rock sound and her use of the electric guitar takes her there, though none of the songs actually have a hook or distinctive enough lyrics to land that ambition. The album is produced by Danger Mouse, so how much . . . Little Broken Hearts is actually the musical and thematic vision of Norah Jones remains something of a mystery.

Vocally, . . . Little Broken Hearts is a mostly familiar Norah Jones experience. Jones has decent range and sticks to the alto and soprano registers for the most part with a smoky style to her voice. She sings her songs with a universal slowness and deliberation that make the vocals seem much more practiced than emotive. . . . Little Broken Hearts is entirely lacking in vocal surprises. However, there are more points on . . . Little Broken Hearts where the vocals sound produced – enhanced by effects and reverb and her own backing vocals – than on her prior works. This leads to a somewhat diluted and inconsistent quality level for the vocal presentation.

The instrumental accompaniment on . . . Little Broken Hearts is similarly produced and unremarkable. “Say Goodbye” is a very basic guitar, bass, drums pop track and it foreshadows much of the album. The contrasts are stark, like “She’s 22,” which is a classic-sounding Norah Jones jazz-pop song. Despite the variety of instruments, there are no songs that have a memorable pop tune that one might find themselves humming after listening to the album.

Repetition is the word for the lyrics on . . . Little Broken Hearts. Intended to be a concept album about her own breakup, Norah Jones seems to have been bored through the writing of . . . Little Broken Hearts. More often than not, she simply repeats a line or two ad nauseam in a narcoleptic fashion – “I’m folding my hand” (“Good Morning”), “Take it back” (“Take It Back”), “Out on the road” (“Out On The Road”), and the word “happy” pops up more than nine times in the song “She’s 22.”

. . . Little Broken Hearts is hampered by particularly lame rhyme schemes. Jones seems pretty lazy with her writing when she writes “Words spoken silently, I could never understand / How breath delivers such poison to someone too weak to stand / And dust can turn into mud out on the sea / In the sea” (“Take It Back”). Far too frequently, Jones rhymes the same words with themselves on this album and that is, sadly unimaginative.

The only lyrical intrigue comes on the final song where Norah Jones describes a dream in decent visual terms. When she sings, “And the night is oh so clear / The clouds will never reappear / But the moon is out of place / And all the treesare looking strange / And feeling the warmth of your breath against my skin . Now I hope this isn’t only just a dream” (“All A Dream”), she paints a mental picture and emotional landscape well. But more often than not, the lyrics and vocals are produced to be on par with the instrumentals, which overwhelm them and make this album far less distinct in the statements Jones and Burton want to make.

. . . Little Broken Hearts is different from other Norah Jones albums. Her fans might actually be excited to hear the different direction she goes in with . . . Little Broken Hearts; but those who have a broad musical palate will find this to be very familiar in the way it sounds. It is a very typical, if somewhat unimaginative and underachieving, pop album that could have been made by any of a thousand musical artists.

The best song might be “All A Dream” and the low point is the repetitive “Miriam.”

For other works by Norah Jones, please visit my reviews of:
The Fall
Feels Like Home
Come Away With Me


For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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