Ever since news leaked last year that Norah Jones, renowned for her liltingly lovely but rather restrained jazz-inflected music, was collaborating with producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton on Little Broken Hearts, intrigue has surrounded the project. What, many wondered, did such a bold choice of producer mean for Jones’ music? The two had collaborated on a track for his 2011 album, Rome, but on the face of it they seemed unlikely bedfellows. Was she headed in a new and different direction? And, more importantly, would she be able to pull such a musical reinvention off?
Listening to the 12 songs that comprise Little Broken Hearts, it’s safe to say that while Jones has not radically reinvented herself as a musician, she has taken herself outside of her comfort zone and she has succeeded in crafting a cohesive and compelling song cycle about heartbreak and romantic betrayal. In the past, dismissive critics have poked fun at Jones’ vocal style, nastily calling her ‘Snorah Jones,’ and also sneered at her massive mainstream success.
Still, in recent years Jones has proven herself something of a musical chameleon, releasing a couple of albums with her side project, the alt-country outfit known as the Little Willies, that were closer in tone and execution to something Gillian Welch might do than the jazzier stuff we’d hitherto come to expect from the New York native. Beneath the familiar jazz veneer, it seemed, lurked a multi-faceted musician with influences and interests many of her listeners might not have ever have thought to associate with her earlier works.
Little Broken Hearts, then, is indeed a musical departure for Jones and it’s one that’s more than skin-deep. These are songs that seethe quietly, reflecting on the breakdown of a long-term relationship, and doing so in often unexpected and impressive ways. On ‘Miriam’ she plots the murder of her ex’s new girlfriend and the percussion-infused title track imagines the hearts of the world’s jilted lovers wielding knives, en masse, and wreaking revenge on the lovers that betrayed them.
It’s altogether much darker territory that Jones has previously charted and she does so convincingly and interestingly. Burton proves himself her perfect musical partner in crime, pushing her sultry vocals to the fore and gently embellishing the songs with everything from cello and synthesiser (on the slow-ambling, self-aware ‘Good Morning’) to the bass, drums, electric guitar and string quartet sections that abound on almost every other track. Such embellishments are carefully and tastefully chosen, but never so much so that they seem soulless or contrived.
Haters are probably still going to find much to criticise in both Jones’ hushed, confiding style of vocal delivery and the lo-fi production values, but there’s also a lot to like here. Lo-fi it may be, but it’s also nuanced and complex. The title track contrasts her vocals with just the right amount of reverb and ‘Say Goodbye’ is a song that will resonate with anybody who has ever nursed a broken heart and wished never to cross paths with their ex.
‘Take It Back’ contrasts multiple layers of Jones’ vocals with a quiet cacophony of noise that builds in time with the lyrics: ‘Words spoken silently I could never understand / How breath delivers such poison to someone too weak to stand / And dust can turn into mud out on the sea / Out on the sea.’ While Little Broken Hearts might not be the full-on musical reinvention some were hoping for, it’s a quietly compelling album that proves Norah Jones is many things, yes, but she’s never boring.