The New York Times Features 5th Annual IMA Judge Norah Jones
The New Season | Pop
Staying in the Zone
By NATE CHINEN
Published: September 9, 2009
NORAH JONES has spent the better part of this decade as the patron saint of temperate introspection, and in many ways a beacon of constancy. But her world has hardly been static. “I’ve gone through a lot of transitions in the last couple of years, musically and personally,” she said recently from the offices of her label, Blue Note. “And then in a way, we all have, with everything that’s been going on.” Pulling back from the personal to the universal, she sounded very much the songwriter. “Change is what a lot of this record is about,” she added.
Ms. Jones was still mixing tracks from her fourth studio album, “The Fall,” due out Nov. 17. But she already had a good handle on its theme. Produced by Jacquire King, known for his work with Tom Waits and Kings of Leon, it’s a departure from her usual jazz-and-country fare, an atmospheric rock record drenched in hazy reverb and rooted in chugging rhythm.
It finds Ms. Jones on guitar more than piano and features a cast of studio aces rather than her longtime working band. “I tried not to let this record go in the country direction,” she said. “I wanted this set of songs to stay in a zone.”
Of course “The Fall” isn’t a wholesale reinvention: Ms. Jones, now 30, still sings in her intimate croon, stretching out phrases with sensuous languor. On a song called “Even Though,” written with her frequent collaborator Jesse Harris, she reflects on a romantic awakening even as she sets out on her own. “Light as a Feather,” which bears the thumbprint of Ryan Adams, depicts a couple working through their issues as best they can. “Stuck,” a collaborative effort with Will Sheff of the indie-rock band Okkervil River, takes a tougher angle. “Why don’t you leave,” Ms. Jones sings evenly, “Leave me be?”
Among the recent changes in Ms. Jones’s life, one made the gossip pages: the end of her relationship with Lee Alexander, who had also been her bass player and producer. She granted that “Back to Manhattan,” a waltz, might seem to tap a confessional vein. (“I don’t know nothing about leaving,” goes one pivotal line. “But I should do it today.”) Beyond that, though, she was cagey: “There are moments in all the songs that are a bit confessional. Part of the fun of songwriting is that you can exaggerate everything.”
Given the stark difference in its sound and the trend in record-industry sales, “The Fall” could turn out to be an unfortunately titled album. (Every Norah Jones release has sold millions of copies, including her 2007 album, “Not Too Late.”) But Ms. Jones said she couldn’t fret about that. “People who are real fans understand that there’s change involved in growing up and being an artist,” she said. “I think it was time for me to do this.