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Norah Jones’ new album, “Little Broken Hearts,” out today, is a gorgeous sonic and lyrical exploration of a crumbling relationship that takes Jones’ already impressive talents to a new plateau.
It’s a stunningly dark album that covers betrayal, debilitating hurt, shame, the desire for revenge, and, ultimately, the ability to walk away, bowed but not broken. The album opens with the dreamy, string-laden “Good Morning,” in which she, over a sleepy, lullaby-like melody, gently sings that she’s “folding her hand,” as she realizes she's holding losing cards. From the opening notes, even though only Jones’ name is on the album, it is clear that her collaboration with co-producer/co-writer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) is a total partnership.
Similar to how Danger Mouse and The Shins’ James Mercer came together to create Broken Bells, Danger Mouse and Jones have forged a new sound here that captures the most winsome parts of Jones’ musical gifts and pushed them into something new. The listener gets the best of Jones’ often low-key, but never sloppy, vocals, in a totally new context: gone, for the most part, are the jazzy, folky turns from her past album. They’ve been replaced with hypnotic, atmospheric swashes of sound.
The two met when they collaborated on “Rome,” Danger Mouse’s album with Italian film composer Daniele Luppi. Jones, along with Jack White, provided vocals for the album and remnants of that project lovingly and sharply creep into this one: Every now and then a deliciously razor-edged guitar line straight out of a Sergio Leone western cuts through everything else going on in the melody, such as with the opening of the swaggering “4 Broken Hearts,” which sounds like the best song (other than “Constant Craving” or “Wicked Game”) that kd lang or Chris Isaak never recorded, or album closer, the languid "All A Dream."
“Little Broken Hearts” is never static. This is an album that moves forward with the slow, stealthy deliberation of a shark. Songs swell and build, sonic templates shift into something new. Nothing ever feels hurried or rushed.
With admirable ability to not edit, on “She’s 22,” Jones, who is only in her early 30s, has to confront her lover about the adoring fan who makes her man feel special, just like the coed who captures her professor’s wandering eye. There’s always someone younger and prettier, even when you’re a multiple Grammy winner. It’s unclear if the same 22-year old is the woman in “Miriam,” an absolute stunner of a song addressed to a female who has cheated with her boyfriend-- in Jones’ own house. It’s chilling when Jones sings, in a sweet voice dripping with quiet menace, “Miriam, that’s such a pretty name. I’m going to say it when I make you cry.” It goes downhill for Miriiam from there.
“Little Broken Hearts” never screams. It’s way too good for that. Instead, each hurt is delivered to inflict maximum damage, but with a sly, subtle needle prick rather than a jagged dagger or an obvious gun. Though Jones plays piano--the instrument she’s best known for-- here, it’s often in a muted, subtle way. The focus is solely on the wreckage left over in the wake of where there once was love.