Norah Jones has always been that singer and pianist who can run the gamut of popular American music without breaking a sweat. On Come Away with Me, she utilized simplistic jazz flourishes to accompany some of the most gorgeously conceived ballads of 2002. In a year dominated by overbearing masculine pomposity — remember Eminem, Creed and Nelly — Jones was able to sell records refreshingly based on pretty little pop tunes. In 2004, Feels Like Home, a less popular album, but still one with a lush sweetness, arrived with country licks and that elusive “down-home” sound. I’ll be honest; I had a crush on this girl who so cleverly utilized disparate elements of different American musical traditions, all the while making it sound so easy and light.
Her most recent release, Not Too Late, continues this trend. The songs are still pretty, catchy and unobtrusive. The arrangements are more stripped down; Jones never uses more instruments than seem absolutely necessary. After three albums, however, her music is perhaps becoming too unobtrusive. I would say that Not Too Late showcases Norah’s most creative arrangements yet, but not a single song ventures past the quiet, straightforward sound that she has become known for. There is a passing, but memorable taste of eccentricity on “Sinkin’ Soon” when Jones sings, “wheel of cheese high in the sky.” The songs all feel a little more driven, from the urgent finger picking on “The Sun Doesn’t Like You,” to the upbeat strumming of “Little Room,” where Jones makes the morbid delightful, cooing: “If there were fire we’d burn up for sure, but that’s just fine by me cause we’d be together forever more.”
The title track, which closes the record, finally shows Jones simply accompanying herself with unpretentious piano chords, and probably is the most endearingly catchy of the thirteen tunes. Well-conceived sparseness is the musical virtue in today’s world of bombastically overproduced pop. Unlike most popular artists, Jones is really at her best when it is just her and a piano, which anyone can hear with “My Dear Country.”
In the end, Not Too Late is a solidly crafted collection of songs, and perhaps my only complaint is personal. I find myself waiting for Jones to really let herself go a la Carole King, or in the way that Cat Power really let go on The Greatest. The later made many quiet albums before donning a 16-piece backup band, so I guess the comparison isn’t really fair — maybe Norah just has a few more to go.
I find myself yearning for the gruff soulfulness that I believe Jones can muster, and that she teases a little more this time around, with songs like “Sinkin’ Soon.” It is not too late for Norah to experiment with the whole diva thing. If she wants to really run the gamut of American music, she’ll have to do that, too.