ARTS

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January 30, 2007

Norah Jones's self-exploration comes just in time

Norah Jones’s debut album Come Away With Me was one of the best-selling albums of the past decade. Listeners eager to hear something different, softer, and gentler than the usual fare snapped up 20 million copies of it. Despite the paucity of promotion and radio airplay, the album’s most popular track, “Don’t Know Why,” is one of the few timeless songs of this decade. A song so sweet and so perfect, it seemed like it had always been there, just waiting patiently for someone to record it. Come Away With Me would go on to win eight Grammy Awards, sell 10 million copies in the U.S. alone (this in the heyday of file-sharing), and give Jones the financial freedom to record more personal albums.

Not Too Late, Jones’s third album and her first with all original material, is not her best work. She risks more here than on her previous discs, and though she often succeeds, there are times when she falters. Jones has grown artistically, toying with numerous influences that she hadn’t explored much before, particularly country music. Not Too Late is the work of an emerging artist who is enriching her signature sound with more unique interpretations and expressions.

“Rosie’s Lullabye,” perhaps the album’s best song, perfectly captures a moment of intimacy when its central character yearns “for a star/ to carry her away.” “My Dear Country,” Jones’s most political song, sets its lyrics over a jazzy piano melody as Jones admits that she cherishes her dear country, “but sometimes I don’t understand/ the way we play.” “Be My Somebody” is one of her most country-tinged tracks, reminiscent of Neil Young and Bob Dylan in their own country phases. Its arrangement, complete with an obligatory guitar solo, indicates the deep influence this genre has had on her.

When artists decide to write all their own material, they take more responsibility upon themselves than when they make their living interpreting other people’s songs. On her earlier albums, Jones’s artistic risks were dictated by the particular producers and songwriters she was working with. Although her second album, Feels Like Home, saw an emergence of more personal songs, the music was too slickly produced and lost the rough edges necessary for conveying emotion. This album permits Jones to expose herself at last, and it provides the listener with slower, more intimate songs that reveal the range of her vocal talent. Not everything is a success—quite a few tracks feel monotonous enough to skip altogether—but flashes of brilliance, rawness, and maturity abound on tracks like “Rosie’s Lullabye,” “My Dear Country,” and “Sinkin’ Soon.” Jones is only now beginning to realize the full potential of her musical talent, and any mistakes she makes here are expected. Unsatisfied with the words and arrangements of others, she has decided to take the difficult step forward.

I suspect the reviews for this album will mean more to Jones than those of her previous albums. She need not worry, however. For all of its imperfections, this is a good album. But it’s nothing more. It’s the ambition and growth signaled by this album’s release that is important. Not Too Late is entirely her own material—inspired by her experiences, influenced by her musical heroes, and set apart from her previous works by its unconventional, older-sounding songs. This album is rougher and more uneven than anything she’s made before, but to me that is like a virtue and something to applaud, considering the sterility and inoffensiveness of her previous records. The rough edges found here are necessary and ultimately give a more accurate portrait of her than anything she’s done before.