For a few days there, it was everywhere, the striking PR photo of Norah Jones – blue-black hair, ivory skin, cherubic good looks. Gradually, as pop-culture does, the story of her new album, Little Broken Hearts, osmosed into my daily life: Jones had made the record at the rough end of a relationship, the album was produced by wunderkind Brian Joseph Burton AKA Danger Mouse and it was “dark”.

Jones’ link to Danger Mouse went back to the producer’s concept album Rome (with Italian composer Daniele Luppi), a tribute to spaghetti westerns which also featured Jack White as well as Jones on guest vocals. She and Burton cocooned themselves in the studio, wrote Little Broken Hearts as they went and between them played pretty much everything.

Two talented artists, pop heavyweights – she sold 20 million of 2002’s Come Away With Me, he (as half of Gnarls Barkley with Cee Lo Green) ruled the world in with 2006 with ‘Crazy’ – coming together in creative union. Fireworks? Not really – some sputterings, a little smoke, but mainly a damp squibb.

The problem is a mismatch of talents. Norah Jones has a sweet, light touch – whether it be voice or piano – and her songs and delivery are rooted in the pop end of jazz, with tailings of country pang. Never heavy, never overtly full-blooded or tear-stained, her music’s popularity rests on her predictability and niceness. Her current side-band, the very pure country Little Willies  – is the perfect vehicle for her natural style, framing her voice in a glow of grand ol’ homeliness.

Danger Mouse, by contrast has a heavy, insistent touch – forcing beats and textures into places they really shouldn’t fit, usually to great effect. It is his sometimes overloaded style of production that gives (almost) everything he touches a sense of contemporary immediacy and ‘now’ness. He is a go-to guy who has worked with U2, Beck and Gorillaz.

And he just doesn’t click with Norah on Little Broken Hearts. The break-up and revenge backstory is already a little hard to swallow – Jones just doesn’t seem to have a vindictive bone in her body – but when the moods are as forced as Danger Mouse makes them, the whole thing implodes and sags, emotionally.

Opener ‘Good Morning’ seems typical Jones – smoky vocal, piano arpeggio, smudged acoustic guitar – and is nice enough. From there we are spun through various styles and sound-worlds which are all beautifully shaped and crafted tracks – but not for Jones.

‘Say Goodbye’ could be perky Japanese pop. The title track ‘Little Broken Hearts’ attempts to be dark and menacing but the vocal is too even and sane (it is actually a fantastic song and would be a hell of a thing if interpreted by someone truly unhinged, like Florence Welch). On ‘She’s 22’ Jones compares herself with her ex’s new (younger) girlfriend – and although I should know she is bitter, I really have no idea how she feels.

Burton’s production seems forced – he largely dresses mundane musical ideas in squiggly or raspy or electro-haloed timbres for effect, which too often fall short. Or maybe it just seems that way behind Jones’ too-sweet and measured delivery. His spaghetti Western reverberations on ‘4 Broken Hearts’ are a misfire (though, once again, a great piece of songwriting – I would love to hear this done by Adele). The lowered distorted vocal of country-ish tracks ‘Travelin’ On’ and ‘Out On the Road’ are prime examples of the mistake of tampering with a flawless voice such as that of Norah Jones.

Two tried, trusted and much-loved artists – victims of huge early success – who seem lost as to what direction to take next. Little Broken Hearts could have been such an artistic blast, but I for one feel very much let down that it isn’t.

Published May 2012 on theorangepress.net

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