Norah Jones is back with The Fall, her fourth offering since her silken debut in 2002. As such it represents quite a departure from her previous work. The latest album sees the artiste mix and match different sounds along with a new set of collaborators, including Jacquire King, a producer and engineer who has notched bands like Kings of Leon and Modest Mouse plus Tom Waits on his cv. Jones wrote nearly all of the songs in the past and most of the songwriting credits here still go to the singer on her own, though she has enlisted some new writing partners, including Ryan Adams and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff.
Jones was looking for someone who could take her out of her comfort zone and chose King as producer much as a result of his work on one of her all-time favorite records, Tom Waits’ Mule Variations. Indeed there are times on The Fall that you almost expect Waits’ gravelly tones to kick in. The record heralds a musical makeover for Jones and a styling change too. Gone are the flowing silky locks to be replaced by a kookie, cutie cut, a top hat and Victorian dress on the album cover. Her contrastingly modern publicity shots are also quite enough to keep a fashion editor nice and busy. An artiste’s style and looks are central components in the marketing mix and most often overplayed by major labels seemingly more interested in female form over content. Not so with Norah Jones. She has enough musical substance to carry all before her, though looking a real honey still helps.
The single “Chasing Pirates” which starts proceedings is the most commercial thing on offer here. The song has an insistent keyboard phrase and snare punctuation, around which Jones’ deliciously come-hither vocal plays. At not much more than two and a half minutes, it’s lovely but over much too soon. It is also deceptive given much of what follows. “Even Though” contrastingly sees Jones in alt-rock territory with heavily echoed shards of guitar, sparse piano and a persistent drum beat creating a dreamy yet tense atmosphere as the singer explores an ambivalent relationship in understated soft tones. The synth-laden third track, “Light As a Feather”, co-written with Ryan Adams, takes us into torch song angst, with the singer herself contributing some emotive electric guitar. For alt-rock, read a touch of alt-country here, “We’re light as a feather/Heavy as the weather/If it was raining stones”.
“Young Blood” is an intriguing song, with lyrical references to vampires and arson and a short but insidious chorus. It seems to wash over you but creeps up insistently and becomes an album high point. The next five songs are all penned by Jones solo and chiefly deal with the break-up of her relationship. “I Wouldn’t Need You” implores the man to come back, while “Waiting” has her yearning for him to come home but the sense is he won’t ever. “It’s Gonna Be” is an oddity, almost soft-shoe glam rock merged with electric piano funk as it deals with public fall-out using a talk show metaphor. “You’ve Ruined Me” is a country flavored lament set to a waltz tempo which sees the writer accepting her fate in a faintly desultory manner. You try to excuse the rhyming of “Manhattan” with “happened” on “Back To Manhattan” as the song is an appealing slow blues with some nice guitar from Sam Cohen.
The Texan rocker, Will Sheff, is the co-writer on “ Stuck” and the song brings with it a quite different feel and short passages of George Harrison-esque guitar. The tempo changes for the soft and beautiful ballad, “December”, which sees Jones in more familiar soulful territory. The song is a simple lullaby of sadness. Don’t expect a near-Scissor Sisters experience with the penultimate track, “Tell Yer Mama”, which sees a return to the sparse territory of dismembered guitar which battles against a chugging country backing rhythm.
The record concludes with a solo blues, “Man Of The Hour” written alone by Norah Jones and simply featuring her voice and accompaniment. After all the human inspired let-down that precedes this wry little song, it is fitting that Jones chooses her pet dog as her own ‘Man of the Hour’. It is also a reminder of the consummate craft that Norah Jones brings to songwriting and performance. This album isn’t a total success but it is different and quite bold in comparison to her earlier work, much of which is totally lovely but which can drift off into easy listening. The Fall won’t hit the dinner party playlist in quite the way that Come Away With Me and its successors did but it is most definitely worth a close listen.