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Norah Jones, ‘…Little Broken Hearts’ (Blue Note/EMI)

Norah Jones
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 01, 2012
Label: Blue Note/EMI

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.