Calling an album Starbucks fare is, quite possibly, the ultimate brush-off in music criticism. It's tantamount to saying that a recording equates to perfectly agreeable white noise for the masses, but it could never actually capture or move people — even if millions do actually buy it. The Starbucks connotation is so deeply ingrained in the music-writing lexicon that the fact that the latte-serving outposts currently stock their counter racks not only with jazz-pop but, say, the latest CD from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros — the nonreligious indie-rock equivalent of a joyous, Pentecostal hippie cult — will probably do little to alter it.
For the past decade, no performer has had that corporate-coffeehouse description applied to her music more consistently than Norah Jones. (Yes, it really has been a decade since her down-to-earth blockbuster of a debut, Come Away With Me.) That's why it's so striking to see a very different sort of media narrative surrounding her new album, Little Broken Hearts. A recent Magnet cover story reassured self-consciously hip readers that it's OK to like her music now — that liking her music doesn't have to mean identifying with her stereotypical fans, described as "turtlenecked wine-bar Romeos and Birkenstocked fern herders."
What could prompt broad reconsideration of an artist and her body of work while she's still active, as opposed to after the fact, as with disco and Donna Summer? For starters, it seems there's a bit — just a bit, mind you — of self-examination going on in the critical ranks, from Carl Wilson's serious wrestling with Celine Dion's global impact several years back to discussions this year and last about Adele and Bonnie Raitt and the dignity of pop music that does justice to the emotional nuances of daily life. Not that the vicious cycle of blog buzz and backlash has fallen by the wayside or anything.
More likely, it's not us. It's Jones herself, and the quietly penetrating postmodern pop album she released in early May, that have altered the storyline. She's revealed layers that she's only hinted at in the past. The Wall Street Journal's John Jorgensen concluded that she's finally working with sounds and sensibilities that speak to her peers. (She is just 33, after all, which is younger than Jack White by a few years.) Writing for The Atlantic, Jonathan Bogart pinpointed a subtler turn in the emotional landscape of her songs: After working in a pleasantly romantic vein for a good long while, she's given voice to anger.
Little Broken Hearts bears all the hallmarks of a contemporary indie success. As just about everyone who's written about it has pointed out, the cover image mirrors the aesthetics of a '60s sexploitation film poster, sort of akin to Lana Del Rey's retro film referencing, only not so absent of knowing, seductive humor. Then there's the fact that Jones wrote and recorded the album with the go-to guy for gritty yet atmospheric vibes: Danger Mouse. The results of their holing up in his studio are slinky, low-slung and artfully elusive. The dusky-hued sound, along with Jones' absolutely unruffled singing, veils the venom of the songs; the listener has to draw in close in order to feel the bite.
Expressing anger can be treacherous territory for women artists. Alanis Morissette went about it in a bracing, in-your-face way in the early '90s, and her Jagged Little Pill had an immediate and polarizing impact. On the other hand, Bogart's piece invoked Nancy Sinatra and Bobbie Gentry as points of comparison for Jones' "coolly reserved" delivery. It's highly unlikely that their performances would ever be dismissed as "bitchy," but as Bogart noted in a subsequent exchange of emails with the Scene, there's also a much greater chance of their deeper intentions being misinterpreted.
"The primary difference," writes Bogart, "is that it's possible for people to listen to Norah Jones (or Nancy or Bobbie) and completely miss hearing the anger. A lot of that is due (to be very broad) to sexism — there's an assumption that a woman making nice-sounding, politely expressed music can't have any deeper meaning, that everything is all on the surface. (Alanis is a great comparison; everything really is on the surface for her, which has its own limitations.)
"It's a common complaint for music critics (or fans) to make that no one listens to lyrics, but in pop music form so often trumps content that people, women especially, who set form against content, are often misunderstood — or, to be more accurate, incompletely understood. Someone who only hears sass in Nancy Sinatra, or intimacy in Bobbie Gentry, or prettiness in Norah Jones (or, to invoke the canonical example, patriotism in "Born in the U.S.A.") isn't wrong, they just don't have the whole story."
Speaking of varied responses, Little Broken Hearts has drawn praise from music critics, even as some of them have raised the question of whether her new direction will cause her to lose the audience she's amassed by showing a softer side in her music — the audience that's bought some 40 million copies of her previous albums. Her audience, and her career, would no doubt look very different if she'd led with a fetching revenge album in 2002.
Bogart concurred. "It's always hard to come up with an alternate history that feels accurate, but my best guess is that if she had begun with the kind of music she's making now: A) Very few of us would have heard of her, but B) those who had would be far more fiercely devoted to her. She would be a cult artist. ... "
There's no way to unhear or unlearn a decade's worth of music and responses to it, but if Little Broken Hearts were Jones' debut, this is how I might start a review of it: You wouldn't want to cross Norah Jones, a sly singer-songwriter with a deceptively sweet-sounding murder ballad in her arsenal. She makes threats without even raising her voice or breaking a sweat.
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