By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
You thought you knew Norah Jones, didn't you? The girl with the sultry good looks and the sweet honey voice and the daydreamy tunes? The chanteuse who sang song after song about love -- how it slips away and how it sneaks back in -- and made it all sound like a never-ending lullaby?
Well, that Norah Jones is gone. Oh, that angelic voice (with enough grit and guts to keep your attention) is still there. But on her foreboding and magnificently moody new album, "Not Too Late," Jones tackles not just matters of the heart, but matters of state as well. And nowhere does she do that as forcefully or succinctly as on "My Dear Country," a plaintive, understated work that arrives just past the midpoint of this 13-song collection and seems offered as a heartfelt plea for an America beset by mistrust and paralyzed by fear.
After positing that "nothing is as scary as Election Day," Jones sings: "But the day after is darker / And darker and darker it goes / Who knows maybe the plans will change / Who knows maybe he's not deranged."
It's an almost stunning statement of opposition and despair coming from the top-selling female artist of the 21st century (30 million records worldwide and counting, thank you very much). And though it may be a risky career move to make political statements, Jones doesn't hold back. On "Sinkin' Soon," a slow, swampy New Orleans dirge, the singer loads on the symbolism: "In a boat that's built of sticks and hay / We drifted from the shore / With a captain who's too proud to say / That he dropped the oar."
It's worth noting that Jones wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on this new record, a significant departure from her first two very good albums "Come Away With Me" and "Feels Like Home," for which she penned just a few tracks. The contrast is significant. This is a confident outing, by far her best, and an album where she stretches mightily without trying to reinvent herself unnecessarily.
If her earlier songs had a gauzy, ethereal quality to them, here they feel darker, more unsettling, ominous even. On "Broken" her voice couldn't sound more consoling, but the words slice through the comforting veil: "He's got a broken voice and a twisted smile / Guess he's been that way for quite awhile / Got blood on his shoes and mud on his brim / Did he do it to himself or was it done to him?"
Other than the sublimely playful "Little Room," there's little reprieve from sadness, loneliness or disappointment. Certainly not on such fare as "Not My Friend" or "The Sun Doesn't Like You," which, though they glide along on Jones's languid cooing murmur, are only "easy listening" if you're not listening that closely. And certainly not on the ostensibly optimistic title track that brings the album to a close. "It's not too late for love," Jones sings, and yet she sounds so uncertain it's enough to break your heart.
And you thought you knew her.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Sinkin' Soon," "Little Room"