After the runaway train that was 2002′s Come Away Wtih Me, Norah Jones had enough cache to pretty much do whatever she wanted. The diamond RIAA-rated coffee house jazz album came out of nowhere (a surprise considering her lineage) to top best of the year lists, also winning eight Grammys and many a mom’s heart as they stopped in to Starbucks on the way to pick up the kids from soccer practice. This instant freedom and carte blanche led to a vast array of projects, including a collaboration album featuring Q-Tip and Dolly Parton, forming roots country group The Little Willies, and working with Daniel Luppi and Danger Mouse on their expansive Rome. That last project must have had some serious mojo, as Jones brought the Mouse (aka Brian Burton) along to produce her new solo disc, Little Broken Hearts, her first since 2009′s The Fall.
Burton is one of the world’s biggest producers, and it’s no surprise that his diverse, singular set of sounds shapes Jones’ style in a new way. That smoky, lithe, gorgeous voice is still the same, the focal point that it deserves to be. That said, anyone still stuck on “Don’t Know Why” is a few steps back in Jones’ experimentation as an artist. She’s no longer anchored to the piano, and Little Broken Hearts steps out into a range that includes fuzzy guitars, string sections, and tinkling pop synthesizers. The two collaborators work together seamlessly, Jones smart enough to work with Burton’s envelope-pushing, and Burton smart enough to work to Jones’ vocal strengths.
Lyrically, this is a breakup album, but the album is anything but one-note, finding solace in a handful of different reactions. For example, album opener “Good Morning” works twinkling synths and shivering violins into a breathy realization, while “Say Goodbye” is the first hint of angst or aggression. Jones’ voice is sweet enough to sing a cutesy line like, “It’s alright, it’s okay, I don’t need you anyway,” without it having even a hint of going over the top. The latter song is as pure and twee as pop gets, the chugging bass, skipping drums, and Jones coos over the top like she’s been making this kind of music for ages.
The difference between this and the cafe music that first made Jones a household name is large, but the transition is anything but jarring. There are a handful of different types of pop covered on Little Broken Hearts, the studied, tried and true compositions of two incredibly smart musicians. Jones has a mastery of her own voice and delivery, fitting it with each new musical twist, and Burton knows just which buttons to push on the pop machine. Her narration in these tracks is always direct, describing specific moments in time and specific relationship details. That said, the emotional depth is in the instrumentals (from the haunting acoustics that open “Take it Back” to the finely wrought, western-tinged wave it rides to its conclusion).
Despite that shifting, the album remains unified by its breakup theme, as if the thing unravels like the stages of grief. The soft, melancholy “She’s 22″ sounds like a resigned, waftier Sharon Van Etten cut with its repetitions of “Does she make you happy?”, but the lone reference that “I’d like to see you happy” works the deepest into the gut. Conversely, “Miriam” takes a vengeful tone, threatening severe violence to the other woman who lured her man to cheat. This latter track, in particular, shows Jones’ ability to push her own boundaries. She’s not trading in dinner party music here.
This is a serious indie pop album. Jones and Burton have created something that should fit in the record collection of any Feist-loving indie kid just as easily as that of those soccer moms she won over years ago. Whether Little Broken Hearts actually finds that mass appeal or winds up frustrating both halves remains to be seen. It definitely walks a fine line between the two worlds, perhaps not edgy or different enough for indie pop, and too weird for the coffeehouse. But the songwriting, vocals, and clever production are undeniable, and the pairing just works, back on Rome and here as well. Only good things could come from Burton and Jones working together again in the future, perhaps pushing that envelope even further and finding an even more unique power.
Essential Tracks: “Say Goodbye”, “She’s 22″, “Miriam”