Somehow Norah Jones has survived. That might seem a funny thing to say for someone that burst on to the scene with one of the biggest surprise debut hits of the modern era. And has been in favour almost ever since and always…but it took a few years for Jones to emerge as more than just – seemingly – a record company puppet. In fact she was never that, arguably. She was a nightclub singer with a love of country and though the mainstream story had her serving up soothing piano balladry she was off in a blonde short wig playing punk tunes in disguise, or releasing an album of Willie Nelson covers as part of a country ensemble.
From there she’s worked as a cameo vocalist across hip-hop and electro genres. And slowly but surely she’s broadened the template for her own music – from edging towards country and then working with producers like Danger Mouse, including funkier feels and stepping outside the confines of pop-songs and pure balladry.
The turning point, for me, was 2009’s The Fall – if I was a cautious and curious fan up to that point I’ve been nearly a cheerleader ever since. Here was the music I was sure she had in her that night I watched a timid performer on her debut world tour; deer in the headlights and politely playing soft covers and the songs people had lapped up. She was good. But she was far too nice. There had to be some soul and grit.
Well, it turns out there’s plenty. And over the last decade she’s measured out mature pop songs with just what the record company requires.
So here on Begin Again she goes very experimental, even messing with the album form. This is a seven-track collection of previously released singles; a maxi-EP of collaborations recorded across the last year or so.
It’s possibly her very best album – and yet some of her fans will wonder why they’ve been short-changed or even curious as to what they’re really hearing here. I love that. I think this contains some of her very finest material.
The title rocks along on the brittle-funk drumming of the master Brian Blade and Jones’ wonderful electric piano playing. There’s a tendency here to mention the names assocaiated – Blade is one of the true greats and makes any record he’s on instantly worth listening to, Jeff Tweedy was involved in the production too – but this is 100% Norah Jones’ record. It works because of her – the playing, that voice, the songs. It’s all her. It’s always been the case. But the song Begin Again is somehow both deeply familiar and like you’ve never heard Norah before. It’s hugely filmic and multi-layered, a dense groove and jaunty melody propels the song. It would be very nearly her masterpiece…
…but it’s followed by It Was You. A late-night soul reverie that feels like Joan As Police Woman and Dan Auerbach working together to create something wonderful. Again, Norah’s voice is unmistakeable and is the true power here, the real glory. But the drench of horns is a lovely touch and Blade’s drumming is perfectly placed.
This might only be a record of seven songs but two of the first three are so ‘enormous’ that you could feel satiated right there. It would make one of the great Double A-Sides.
A Song With No Name reminds that Jones is just as much of a country singer as she was ever a jazz chanteuse – and carries with it some of the feel of Tusk–era Fleetwood Mac.
There are jazzy slices of electro here – Uh Oh is like something you might only have previously heard on the collaborations compilation (Featuring Norah Jones) and the way the piano ruffles in under a soft-brushed shuffle on Wintertime will have longtime fans recalling their favourite moments from Come Away With Me or Not Too Late.
And then the album-closer, Just A Little Bit, another of the absolute highlights. Here we have the best of Norah’s early work – vocally – filtered through The Fall and Little Broken Hearts-era.
Somehow, in just seven tracks, Jones has created her very finest musical statement to date. Something that anyone with open ears – even if previously never a fan – would be hard-put to deny.
Willful experimentation and quality control can co-exist. And this is the exciting and brilliant proof right here. A candidate for one of the greatest albums of 2019. Easily.
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