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The 'Fall' Experiment: Breaking Old Habits

After <em>Feels Like Home</em> and <em>Not Too Late,</em> Norah Jones' <em>The Fall</em> is a step in the right direction.
After Feels Like Home and Not Too Late, Norah Jones' The Fall is a step in the right direction.

Norah Jones' voice is refrigerator-cool — never icy or frosty or drop-dead cold — which tends to make any song she sings seem both brisk and a little chilly. This is good for your average singer-songwriter, for whom the tendency to spill the warm blood of emotion needs a little contrast to keep from becoming humid and overwrought. But for Jones, cool distance was becoming a mannerism, a fetish; it was as though she was starting to take pride in not seeming engaged. On her new collection, The Fall, Jones sounds like someone who's decided to snap out of it, to approach new songs with more eagerness and alacrity.


"Young Blood" is clearly not the 1957 Leiber & Stoller hit for the Coasters — Jones is likely never to loosen up that much. But this new version, which she's co-written with Mike Martin, contains a few departures typical of her new album. Jones, who's spent most of her recording career behind a piano, plays the guitar here and throughout this collection. And she's poking around in search of new metaphors for love and heartbreak, here imagining herself shooting at werewolves and setting New York City aflame. No one's going to mistake Norah Jones for a rebel, but it's helped revitalize her gift for fashioning a sharp musical hook.

The sound of this new album is both stark and spacious. Jones is working for the first time with the producer and engineer Jacquire King, who has also collaborated with Tom Waits and Kings of Leon, musicians who favor a louder, rougher sound than we associate with Norah Jones. King has designed an echoing sonic landscape, where electric guitars and various drummers reverberate alongside Jones' voice. The freedom of these arrangements have freed Jones to rock out — or at least come as close as Norah Jones will to rocking out.

The new Norah Jones is also something of a rueful joker, as when she salutes the "Man of the Hour" in a song of the same name. The song suggests that, after too many rocky romances, she's found a perfect companion: a dog.

If, in the end, The Fall is not quite as jaunty as the top hat Jones wears on its cover, it's certainly an improvement over the dolorous self-regard of her last couple of albums. She's referred to this collection as "an experiment." I don't think even the most conservative Norah Jones fan is going to find this experiment all that jarring. But it's opened up her voice to a new expressiveness that's not tidy or merely pretty.

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Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.