When Norah Jones wafted onto the airwaves in 2002, her smoky, jazz-tinged piano pop was a startling breath of fresh air; after four years of Americanized Europop, the idea that the Top 40 still had room for someone singing and playing without artifice almost felt revolutionary. Which is a joke, really, because there’s nothing the slightest bit revolutionary about Jones’ debut, Come Away with Me — but it did herald a macchiato-scented tsunami of exquisitely tasteful artists whose ubiquity threatened to turn Jones into a joke before she really got started.
This would be a lot to deal with for any artist, but it seemed like even more of an annoyance for Jones; she had bigger ambitions than a lifetime of “Come Away with Me” clones, but she looked and sounded like a girl who belonged behind a piano, crooning tasteful ballads. It didn’t help that her first tour seemed to find her in a perpetual state of stage fright, or that her voice wouldn’t let her get away with sounding anything but beautiful.
She’s certainly been willing to try, however, both on her own albums — 2004’s Feels Like Home and 2007’s Not Too Late represented subtle variations on the theme of her gazillion-selling debut — and in a series of increasingly bizarro side projects and cameo appearances. The past few years have found Jones singing (occasionally profane) hooks for a wide variety of artists, including Q-Tip, the Lonely Island, and Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom, as well as recording with country/folk hooligans the Little Willies and her punk band, El Madmo. When word got out that Jones had mostly abandoned her piano and taken up guitar for her fourth release, The Fall — and worked with a cast of characters including Ryan Adams, Will Sheff, Marc Ribot, and producer Jacquire King — it was pegged as her “rock album,” and maybe even the full-on gonzo record she seemed to be hinting at.
The truth of the matter is, of course, much more mundane. She might do some unexpected things outside her solo career, but as a name brand, Norah Jones is too smart and successful to make any sharp turns. The Fall represents an unequivocal evolution, but it isn’t different enough to turn off anyone who loved Come Away with Me; it’s more of a refinement of her established pattern, with different textures (primarily courtesy of Ribot’s webs of atmospheric guitars and James Poysner’s keyboards) adding new shades of color to Jones’ pillow-soft voice. The Fall does have a slightly quicker pulse than Jones’ previous efforts, and once or twice, she threatens to lead the band into a bona fide workout, but things always cool down before they get too crazy.
Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. If you buy The Fall expecting a huge departure, you’re probably going to tune out pretty quickly — but anyone who expects huge departures from Norah Jones is a fool, and most likely has other bad investments to worry about. If, on the other hand, you go in hoping to hear something more interesting than Not Too Late or Feels Like Home, then you’re in luck; these 14 tracks find Jones developing her sound more assuredly than ever, and if they don’t shatter any barriers between her warm little patch of earth and the larger musical world, well…it’s so comfortable in here, why would you even want to do such a thing?