Homegirl Norah Jones and Danger Mouse make beautiful music together
5 out of 5 stars
LITTLE BROKEN HEARTS
Blue Note Records
Admittedly, I have lost my way with Norah Jones. Her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, was a gorgeous introduction to the hometown girl, but she got progressively meh with her subsequent albums; by 2009’s The Fall, I had to walk away.
But with her fifth release, Little Broken Hearts, she and producer Danger Mouse team up to deliver a knockout … and a shiner from Norah feels so good.
Initially I wasn’t sold on Jones’ collaboration with Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) — she’s never emitted the rawness or edge of Sparklehorse, The Black Keys or The Shins’ James Mercer, all who have collaborated with Burton to create astonishing stuff. But the moment Broken Hearts starts, all doubt is put to rest.
“Good Morning” is a moody opener, pitting Jones’ sleepy vocals over a languid guitar-strum, accompanied by subtle touches of cello and keyboards. Immediately, we catch the desolate, dreamlike state. Sounds depressing, but instead it’s a quiet intro to what’s to come.
She shifts into a groovier gear with “Say Goodbye.” The beat isn’t her usual oeuvre, but it never battles her recognizable voice. Burton even fiddles with vocal effects, recalling some of his Gnarls Barkley work. His magic isn’t transforming artists into something new, but exploring their differences in depth. By this second track, it’s clear Burton is as responsible for this album as Jones.
Although Hearts traffics in heartbreak, the album doesn’t have that wrenching melodrama of, say, Adele. Jones is slightly distant but it reads as quiet resilience. In “She’s 22,” a younger rival bothers Jones, but her voice isn’t vengeful or insecure. Instead, she just lays it out singing, I’m holding on / to a thing that’s wrong / ‘cause we don’t belong, but you like my songs and you made me happy.
The poetry of lyrics in “4 Broken Hearts” partners sublimely with its gigantic sound. At a mere three minutes, Jones croons the opening line — People can’t be handmade/and he keeps slaving away / At a stone that’s too hard to break / A girl who’s too lost to save — only to swell into a heavy drum-based verses. Then it pulls back like teasing foreplay. The song is melancholic in its naked emotion, but it never asks for sympathy.
Jones ventures toward her previous style on “Out of the Road,” but with a country feel reminiscent of the genre from decades ago. Then the sound flips into the Broken Bells territory that Burton created with Mercer on the following track. “Happy Pills” with a shift out of the intimacy of previous songs into Jones’ declaration of With you gone, I’m alive.
As if to keep us off kilter, “Miriam” is Jones at her darkest — and perhaps most glorious. Yes, she’s about to kill the woman who slept with her man (who she’s already punished from ear to ear), but her coldness is chilling, though this far into the album, you’re on her side. Try to resist the slight smirk when she closes with You know you done me wrong / I’m gonna smile when I take your life.
At 12 tracks, Jones and Burton created a true epic without any filler. Each song has its role to play with a spectrum of sounds and nuances and the story is completed by the final track “All a Dream” with the utmost satisfaction. If you shed a tear, it won’t be for the heartbreak, but likely for the sheer beauty of this album. Little Broken Hearts is a welcome treasure; I hope Jones will forgive me for straying.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2012.