Whether or not Norah Jones is a real jazz singer became the subject of debate after the vocalist debuted in 2002 on the Blue Note label with the multi-platinum-selling pop-jazz album Come Away with Me, which earned five Grammy Awards. Jones’ push to reinvent her sound following her meteoric rise began in earnest with her third album, 2007’s Not Too Late, which found the singer, songwriter, and pianist exploring a range of stylistic turns on stripped down tracks that got a lukewarm reception.
The release of her latest album, The Fall— with its moody atmospherics, yearning lyrics, and glossy production—establishes Jones as a bona fide pop artist. This artsy, ballad laden collection reveals a darker vision than previous projects by the 29-year-old recording artist. It includes eight songs penned by Jones alone, and another five co-written by Ryan Adams, Jesse Harris (including one with Richard Julian), Will Sheff, and Mike Martin. The grittier, guitar-based arrangements feature such A-list session players as guitarists Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel. But the reviews have been mixed.
At times, these songs drift atop emotionally frosty production reminiscent of ex-Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry’s 1985 solo album Boys & Girls. That coolness can be a bit off-putting—several of these songs evoke a sense of melancholy, sadness even. You’re left to wonder about the fall from grace that may have given the album its title. Some of the lyrics evoke good-romance-gone-bad or the confusing emotions that stalk young lovers. But love isn’t the only thing on Jones’ mind. The opening track, “Chasing Pirates,” finds the singer searching for solace amid racing thoughts and elusive ambitions that clutter her mind at night. The song bounces along on a bass riff that is uncannily similar to the theme of the Madonna dance hit “Like a Virgin,” though Jones delivers her vocal with catlike stealth.
Ultimately, though, it’s the lack of catchy hooks that undermines The Fall; after all, what’s a pop album without hooks?
One exception is the lightly rockin’ “It’s Gonna Be,” one of the album’s best tracks and a song that shows off Jones’ gifts as a hip Carole King. But some of the most effective tracks on The Fall are the least produced. For example, the understated sultriness that made Jones so appealing on her debut flickers on the gentle ballad “Waiting,” which simmers over a basic bass, drum, piano, and guitar (and glockenspiel) track that also finds the singer quietly humming the melody during the chorus.
She breaks form again on the country inflected “Tell Yer Mama,” on which Jones chastises a reluctant lover over a loping beat driven by axe slinger Lyle Workman’s stirring slide guitar. Unlike the album’s darker songs, “Tell Yer Mama” is fun, fresh, and frisky. In many ways, the track embodies Jones’ recent collaborations with Bob Dylan on his Hank Williams tribute project, as well as stage and studio pairings with the late Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Costello. That small but impressive body of work has shown that Jones possesses a real affinity for R&B and the rootsier side of country music.
Perhaps “Tell Yer Mama” signals a new direction for this restless recording artist. With The Fall, she’s already set the stage for yet more genre-leaping experimentation.