Norah Jones, '...Little Broken Hearts' (Blue Note/EMI)

...Little Broken Hearts
Critical Mass
Release Date: May 1, 2012
Label: Blue Note/EMI

by Nate Cavalieri

The lesson to glean from ...Little Broken Hearts — what may well endure as the second essential record of Norah Jones' career — is that hate can be transformational. And not the mild emotion triggered by a neighbor's yapping dog or a cubicle-mate's constant gum-snapping. We're talking the gush of crude that rose unstoppably from the Deepwater Horizon to humiliate experts on deep- sea tectonics. We're talking the destructive power of Vesuvius smothering the innocents of Pompeii in blankets of burning ash. This is douse-the-motherfucker-in-gasoline-and-light-a-match stuff. Murderous hate. Hateful hate. This might come as a surprise for the 23 million or so who bought 2002's Come Away With Me and have given Norah Jones only their cursory attention since. In fact, that debut became the most listenable blockbuster of the decade for precisely the opposite reason. The soft twilight of her disinterested alto, the refined near-jazz, the romantic vagaries: it was universally… pleasant. Go ahead and deride it for being too vanilla. It was sumptuous vanilla.

Since then, Jones has pushed into slightly more adventurous terrain, founding an unsurprisingly tasteful roots-country band and evolving into the down-to-earth heiress of the Brooklyn songwriter scene. Still, no matter how many Ryan Adams or OutKast collaborations she racked up, and no matter how many stylish dresses she wore while floating at the periphery of pop culture, our collective attention flagged. Her records gradually involved more guitar and less piano, while she took on more and more of the songwriting: 2009's The Fall (itself a "breakup" record, by the way) was filled with darker tunes, electric guitar, and Wurlitzer. It was a modest effort that met with modest success.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the weather changed. Hell broke loose. Maybe the keenest among us could sense something afoot with Danger Mouse's 2011 record Rome, a largely overlooked post-modern spaghetti-western soundtrack with a Jones guest turn that made her unflappable cool seem icy. But no one was prepared for the abrupt musical left turn that followed a messy split with her "fiction-writing boyfriend" (parlance for "douchebag" these days). She canned her band, went back into the studio with Burton, and collaborated on new kinds of songs. Darker songs. Hateful songs. And now, her transformative Pompeii.

Certainly much of this transformation is thanks to Danger Mouse, whose nom de plume might be due for a Diddy (or Cougar Mellencamp) makeover. But at its core, ...Little Broken Hearts is exciting because it explores the darkest corners of betrayal, bad love, and jealousy with enough vitality to propel Jones out of the bloodless purgatory of brunch music. It might open on the lazy, reticent Dear John letter "Good Morning," but most of what follows is a glowering takedown of a Cheating Lover and the Other Woman.

The hostilities come in assorted flavors: the wah-wah guitar and knuckle-biting sass of "Say Goodbye"; the doleful moan of "She's 22"; the sardonic, Cars-esque kiss-off of "Happy Pills." (The latter's video features Jones poisoning her ex, stuffing him in a Cadillac, and rolling the car into a lake.) By the time things start to wind down with the lovely "Miriam" ("Miriam, when you were having fun in my big pretty house, did you think twice?" later followed by "I'm going to smile when I take your life"), Jones has given her NPR-goody-goody image a bruising worthy of the album's cover — a makeover inspired by the poster for Russ Meyer's pulpy 1965 exploitation flick Mudhoney. The Norah Jones of Little Broken Hearts is no one's idea of America's Sweetheart. She's more like America's Restraining Order.

Sure, the drama is occasionally overplayed, but who better to set the stage than Burton? The spacious, cinematic loneliness that he recently endowed upon Broken Bells and the Black Keys makes a seductive vehicle for Jones' gifts. Certainly his touch as co-writer and producer helps push the stylistic boundaries: Aside from the homespun Americana pluck of "Out of the Road," the record mostly floats along on a blanket of distorted guitars and sparkling synthesizers. There's no greater example than "4 Broken Hearts," a half-time burner with the album's headiest chorus — like everything else, the message is a black-hearted tale of deceit and vicious paybacks: "So you tried to replace me, but you didn't get far," Jones sings, a hint of distortion scuffing up her full-throated vocal. "I tried to repay you, but I only got scarred." The arching melody inspires chills, and for perhaps the first time, so can the singer.

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