The Lowdown: One of the most miraculous things about Norah Jones is that she refuses to be pigeonholed by the music that has largely defined her career. The elegant, mellow piano pop on early albums like Come Away with Me and Feels Like Home could have isolated her in the ranks of other mom-rock artists like Sarah McLachlan or Sheryl Crow. But Jones has managed to channel her roots as a lounge singer in jazz and blues clubs into a prolific career of musical experimentation and collaboration, recording with artists ranging from Dolly Parton to Q-Tip to Herbie Hancock. Begin Again, Jones’ most recent work, is a fitting addition to this oeuvre, a minor gem showcasing her porous musical boundaries and cross-genre virtuosity.
The Good: There is something thrillingly free about the songs on Begin Again. They resist simple categorization and are experimental in the sense that they embody an unabashed confluence of Jones’ many musical inspirations. Take “It Was You”, which begins with wordless vocals over an elastic horn section, transitions into a swoony, almost overwrought, piano line, and settles on a soulful, organ-laced chorus. Meanwhile, “Uh Oh” is as rhythmic as a Lauryn Hill track and might be the only time you ever hear Jones using Auto-Tune.
Much of the propulsion on the record comes from Jones’ personnel, who she manages to brilliantly highlight without losing her creative reigns. Prodigious session artists like Brian Blade and Chris Thomas add a degree of technical adroitness and improvisational flourish, while Jeff Tweedy contributes bountiful alt-folk prowess to “A Song with No Name” and “Wintertime”. But by far the best song on Begin Again is the closer, “Just a Little Bit”. The intricate, hypnotic blend of vocal interplay, shimmering horns, and a syncopated rhythm section feels like a direct homage to Solange’s radically spare R&B.
The Bad: Not every song on Begin Again can sustain a sense of surprise. Although “My Heart Is Full”, the electro-spiritual that opens the album, gives us a rare glimpse into the raw power of Jones’ voice, its invocation in the climactic line, “I will rise,” never quite leads us anywhere. And despite the glittering charm of “Wintertime”, the track steers so closely to Jones’ popular work that it seems to be playing it safe. The record’s greatest disappointment, however, is probably just its brevity. It’s hard not to wonder what more Jones could have done when you consider how much she already managed to do in so little space.
The Verdict: Jones makes music purely for the joy of making it. It’s this creative drive that leads her to studio sessions and tour dates with the most intriguing artists across the industry. But where genre and production experimentation may lead others astray, Jones brings a particular grace to songwriting that allows her to adapt almost seamlessly to new forms. Begin Again revels in exploration, proving no territory is inaccessible to Jones.
Essential Tracks: “Just a Little Bit”, “It Was You”, and “Uh Oh”
Buy: Check out Norah Jones on vinyl here.
Gabriel Fine can be reached on Twitter here.