After Day Breaks was hailed as a return to her jazz roots in 2016, Norah Jones has released Begin Again on Blue Note, an album of unrelated, impromptu recording sessions that add new tones to her well-established sound.
Pretty much everyone has heard of Norah Jones – her intimate, fuzzy vocals on the five Grammy-winning Come Away With Me having earned the album a spot in US chart history’s top-50 best-seller list. But whether we think of warm romance pieces tinged with pain, or the background jazz-lounge vibes she never deserved to be associated with, it all threatens to become a thing of the past with Begin Again, an album title promising new directions.
But it’s the method behind Begin Again, rather than its musical tenants, that marks the biggest change from her previous work. The album’s seven tracks were described by the artist as a “collection of singles … that aren’t really related.” Collaborators like Brian Blade, Doveman (Sufjan Stevens, St Vincent) and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy graced the studio for under three days, using instinct as their starting point. Indeed, Jones’ tools amounted to just a few voice memos and an open mind.
This new stripped-back approach perhaps compliments the essential spirit of simplicity in her songwriting. Notice how Norah Jones is never overblown, nor pretentious, when discussing her work in interviews. For some, she might even carry a sense of reticence. Yet, to listen to her voice, whether singing or talking, is to remind yourself of the gentle, forceless way that the balance and nuance unfolds. Her power lies within the simplicity, and it hits you right where the heart simultaneously hurts and sings.
The musicians on Begin Again sensed this, as do her most adoring fans. As such, the sparse instrumentation on the album simply serves, more often than not, to center that famous vocal tone – to give it plenty of room to breathe. Soft piano clinking; attentive guitars; shuffling, supportive drums – all provide space and atmosphere for the voice to be captured with as much crystalline clarity as possible. Presumably, even a stray spec of dust on the microphone would have understood, and proceeded to carry itself quietly away.
Begin Again’s lyrics, however, tell a much more ambiguous and fraught story. Gone are the sepia-toned images of her most famous works, where lovers would slink of into the night, or sit in rooms like “flowers waiting to bloom.” Even the times when Norah sang of heartbreak in her earlier albums, it was coupled with romantic images: of “flying away,” “catching teardrops,” and “lost balloons” rising up through “the afternoon.”
This rosy filter doesn’t seem to work on her new album, which swaps postcard imagery for something more timeworn and, well, damaged as a result. Before a hint of hope, she says “all love ever does is break and burn and end” on “Begin Again.” The landscape grows darker still on “A Song With No Name,” where she exclaims “If I had a gun, if I had a knife, if I had your love, if I was your wife.” The same song starts with the question “do I hold you too tight?” – it’s a far cry from the soothing, comforting, almost medicinal ode to closeness in 2002’s “The Nearness of You.”
But despite the shift in tone, these are the moments where the album works best – when it’s elegance is most striking and provocative. Curiously, these are also the moments where the instrumentation around Jones’ voice plays more of a central role, evoking some of the curtness and disturbance in the lyrics. There is a bewitching sense to “Uh Oh,” which builds in layers around a spiralling tale of life “slipping in and out of place.” It is also the only time you are likely to hear Norah Jones’ voice through autotune, in what turns out to be a shrewd and intriguing piece of production.
The album’s final song, “Just a Little Bit,” is a real highlight, offering the same blend of redemptive, darker lyricism and wistful, expressive instrumentation. It centers around two pumping bass notes that provide a platform for drowsy horns, creeping organ notes and precise, luscious, high-end piano pathways. Jones’ voice blends in rather than sticking out here, at times sounding full-throated and warm-blooded, at others fluttering away alongside the melody. It’s a song that showcases an artist who is in her element, ready to experiment and to create “in the moment” with those around her.
In releasing several mainly-improvised tracks as singles over the past year, Blue Note have embraced one of the virtues of the streaming age. Begin Again is the result – an album providing snapshots into the movements of one of the world’s best-loved voices. It’s an experience that has afforded Jones the space to grow into freer, moodier and more compelling areas.
Norah Jones – Begin Again (Blue Note)