On the cover of The Fall [Blue Note], her fourth CD after three multi-million sellers, Norah Jones, wearing an elaborate white wedding gown and a black conjure hat, poses next to an obedient, gentle St. Bernard. The reference becomes clear only at the 13th and final song — “Man of the Hour” — of a dystopic, introspective, sometimes sardonic recital that traces, with intense attention to detail and nuance, the narrator’s shifting emotions through the arc of a doomed relationship. Jones’s lyrics may or may not mirror the events that were transpiring in her personal life when she began the songwriting process two years ago. Whatever the case, she illuminates her inner transitions with a plugged-in sonic mise-en-scène far removed from the acoustic, piano-centric world that she has customarily inhabited. With Tom Waits’s 2002 Jacquire King-produced release, Mule Variations, as her template, she retains King as her sound sculptor, deploying the piano and various keyboards towards coloristic ends, delineating and propelling the flow with reverbed, sharply plucked guitar lines that springboard a succession of studio stalwarts, among them guitarists Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel, and drummers Joey Waronker and James Gadson.
If the skronky rock atmospherics and edgy beats frame Jones within a context far removed from her gentle early-career mega-hits, Come Along with Me and Feels like Home, there is no mistaking her sui generis voice: modulated, smoky, swinging, always in tune, with scant vibrato. Her phrasing, subtle and unpredictable, marks her as the great jazz singer that she is, and although she states in the publicity materials that “for this record I wanted to keep the country side away,” she inflects her lyrics with a soulful yearning that bespeaks the Texas upbringing that made her intimate with the tropes of country music and the blues, able to dialogue with such giants as Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson as a peer and not an acolyte. With such solid bedrock buttressing her explorations, it seems evident that Jones, whose privileging of her creative muse over the dictates of commerce is commendable, will influence the pop music conversation for some time to come.