There is not a single note, lyric or affectation to Norah Jones’ colossal debut, 2002’s Come Away With Me, that would foreshadow the dark and at points frightening turn she’d take ten years down the road. In fact, her first three albums all swam in the warm glow of piano-driven jazz, attracting a wide variety of listeners because of Jones’ smooth alto and the affability of the musical backdrop. And then came 2009’s The Fall, which while a breakup album of sorts, continued to refine a lot of the Ryan Adams-y, rhythmic experiments she was exploring at the time. And above all, Jones’ first four albums showcased a young woman with a sultry voice and definite talent, but who seemed unwilling to break out of the mold too much.
On 2012’s Little Broken Hearts, Norah Jones essentially throws away the keys and turns her entire career on its head. Hyperbole may seem too strong for the downright pleasant archetype Jones has helped to sculpt over the last decade, but after a few listens to this new record, the transformation is unmistakable.
Three years ago, Jones collaborated with producer Danger Mouse (née Brian Burton) for a five day writing session, to see how well they worked together. A few songs that ended up on Little Broken Hearts came out of those sessions, but most of it it proved that they were well suited as musical partners. So, after Jones finished The Fall and her last record with alt-country group The Little Willies, she and Burton reconvened to carve out the songs that became Little Broken Hearts. And rather than bring in her usual cast of bandmates to help fill out the arrangements, Jones pretty much kept with the duo of her and Burton, left along in the studio to build twelve songs that explore the stages of heartache after the dissolution of a relationship.
Little Broken Hearts essentially is one large melancholic tableau, occasionally interrupted by a catchy groove or melody, but for the most part it remains a somber affair. You’ll find no “Don’t Know Why,” “Chasing Pirates” or “Sunrise” here; rather, Danger Mouse brings out the raw side of Jones’ gloom, allowing her to really give it 110 percent. There’s no mistaking her full intention with these songs– in fact, it’s as if they were vignettes of anger or despondency that she only showed Burton. And what a perfect person for her to reveal them to, because Burton wholly understands the ache implicit in these tracks. He does a beautiful job of emphasizing their solemnity while adding in a level of mischievous thrill. While Jones may have sounded disconnected from many of the lyrics she sang on previous outings, she’s positively animated on this record, which is in large part due to the safety she felt in creating this work alongside Burton.
While Norah Jones and Danger Mouse went for the streamlined consistency in sound and production on Little Broken Hearts, they do run into a few problems when the songs aren’t quite fully formed in melody and lyric. The record starts out strong with the 1-2-3 punch of “Good Morning,” “Say Goodbye” and the title track, but “She’s 22” is frustratingly simple and redundant. The production is luscious and aurally appealing, but the lyrics come across as trite (something Jones avoids for most of the record, thankfully), and there’s an uncomfortable closeness to the chorus from Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Also, “All A Dream” makes sense being the last track, considering its length, but it sadly doesn’t go anywhere and ends up losing the momentum of adding the perfect encapsulation of the preceding eleven tracks.
That said, there are songs on Little Broken Hearts that are arguably among Jones’ best. “After The Fall” is an atmospheric, dark-edged and ethereal piece that showcases both Jones and Burton’s strengths, and their alchemical relationship when working together. “Happy Pills” is without a doubt the outsider of the album, in that it doesn’t sound like anything else, but it’s an exquisitely crafted pop song with a brilliant chorus. But it’s the penultimate track “Miriam” that may be the best four-and-a-half minutes that Jones has put to tape yet. It’s a delightfully chilling piece that revels in its sinister remove. Jones sings, “Miriam / that’s such a pretty name / and I’ll keep saying it until you die,” with an audible sneer. It’s a level of bone-chilling calm that we’ve never heard from Norah Jones before, and the fact that she and Danger Mouse hit it spot on and make one of the best breakup songs of the last few years is a testament to their artistry and chemistry together.
It’s impossible for us to get another Little Broken Hearts from Norah Jones, because this is such a singular work with such a defined aesthetic. And quite frankly, we wouldn’t want one. But what it does do is reveal a side of Jones we’d only seen hinted at in her last collaboration with Danger Mouse (the three songs she sang on his album Rome in 2010), which thereby opens up a world of possibilities for her next juncture. While many will hope she returns to the piano-guitar-drums combination with an agreeable dose of politeness, Little Broken Hearts suggests that maybe Jones isn’t looking to head back, but instead shake things up even further. If she is able to find a musical partner like Danger Mouse that she connects so well to, we’re due for yet another fantastic record from an artist many of us wrote off years ago.