Norah Jones "Little Broken Hearts"

Norah Jones’ 2002 debut cast the new talent as the standard bearer for a new generation of jazz chanteuses. Winning five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist, Come Away With Me sold an astounding 20 million copies. With that kind of success Jones’ career was set, you’d think. But with each successive album Jones moved in a new direction. Was she running from being type cast, was her assumed sound suffocating, or was she merely a free spirit who followed her muse? Or could it be that instead of letting success box her in, Jones used it as a release? After all, she was no longer weighed down by financial restrictions.

Norah Jones delved into country music on her second release and her third found her exploring darker themes and writing or co-writing all the songs. Her fourth album continued in this vein, with Jones mostly abandoning the piano for guitar. It was the first of her releases not to hit #1 on the charts. This brings us to Little Broken Hearts. Jones teams up with the much sought-after pop/rock producer Brian Burton, aka, Danger Mouse. The pair co-write all the material and Jones sports a hot come-hither look for the album cover. Upon first listen it’s clear that Norah Jones has made a complete departure from her break-through sound. Little Broken Heart sports no jazz sensibility, or “girl-at-the-piano” ballads. This is strictly a highly stylized pop album with pristine production and lots of textured layers.

Norah Jones and Brian Burton first began their alliance in 2009, recording material in Burton’s home studios. Each went on to other projects, reconvening in 2011 to finish the project they had begun together. During the intervening years Jones went through a brutal break-up, which produced a number of emotionally charged songs. That new material is the foundation for Little Broken Hearts. Like Adele, Jones mines the mixed emotions that rage around the dashed dreams and hopes of love, but unlike Adele, Jones steers mostly clear of ballads. That might be the influence of Burton and his electronic bent. Jones doesn’t write loud rock songs. She stays mainly in mid-tempo range. The momentum of Little Broken Hearts is built on Burton’s mingling instrumentation and sonically altered vocals.

Considering how big Brian Burton’s production gets on Gnarls Barkley’s albums, or Broken Bells and Shins’ releases, Little Broken Hearts is rather subdued. “Good Morning” opens the record in a pensive mood. “Say Goodbye” has a faintly Asian ring to it and perks up the tempo. “She’s 22” sounds as if Burton stole into Tom Waits studio and grabbed a chart off the stand. The ambling reverbed guitar keeps company with Jones’ vocals. A number of tracks are begging for dance remixes, including the “After the Fall” and the title track. “4 Broken Hearts” features twangy guitar riffs and tinkling piano – one of the rare instances where that instrument pops up.

Jones’ lyrics are confessional and dark while Burton’s arrangements are leaner than in his other projects. It will be interesting to see if Norah Jones’ fan base follows her down this sweet, forlorn path.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Host)