(26 December 2009) No need to ask Norah Jones if her new album is designed to eclipse the ubiquity of her first. There probably isn't an artist on the planet who could currently shift the twenty million copies that the 2002 album Come Away With Me (review) sold.
Spend a little time in the company of her new album The Fall (Blue Note (USA) 5099906099286-28, 2009) and it becomes clear that the Brooklyn-raised daughter of Ravi Shankar has little interest in purusing that route. The brittle snare-crack and spare organ pulse of the stellar opening song "Chasing The Pirates" serves notice that this is Jones' first album without her troupe of bright young New York Jazzers, informally known as the Handsome Band. After the demise of her relationship with their bassist, Lee Alexander, an autumnal melancholia pervades most of The Fall. The artist has also released a five-track remix EP of "Chasing Pirates with four non-spectacualr alternate versions as well as the original.
"If I could touch myself the way you touched me," she sings on "I Woudn't Need You," evolving the incomprehensible vacuum of a break-up. No less exquisited is "December," a dispatch from "the loneliest place I have known," in which Jones' new band fashion a woozy setting for her careworn tunes.
When songs are brought into play by this sort of subject matter, it's tempting for their creators to sound overwrought. On "Waiting," though, Jones sounds almost concussed, the almost workaday details of her mourning accentuated by the sparsest of accopaniment. Lontime fans may balk at the presence of bad-influence-for-hire Ryan Adams (he co-wrote "Light as a Feather") and the album's producer, the latter-day Tom Waits cohort Jacquire King. But there isn't a moment that could be described as watonly winful.
Jones is right to stay loyal to her intuitive strengths as a balladeer--strengths that are through into piercingly sharp relief by the rough-hewn desolation of "Stuck and You've Ruined Me."
Even those of us who regarded Jones as a guilty pleasure wondered if she had it in her to transcend to the sum total of her influences. It seems our wondering days are over.--Pete Paphides in London and Russ Elliot in New York