Norah Jones Makes a Case For Subtlety on ‘Begin Again’

Norah Jones has always resided in the easy listening jazz camp, and from the onset of the new album “Begin Again,” she sounds to be taking new strides, and more liberties with her sound, which ends up, creating a record with plenty understated character that shows itself in rare moments of spark. It’s a lite jazz selection of songs that make a fair case for the value of subtlety, and an album that displays a realization of a very specific craft at its next level.     

“My Heart Is Full” is a meditative, bluesy dirge that achieves much of its impact for its use of open space. It drags with such understatement that can be a bit frustrating, and somehow makes it all the more satisfying. Lyrically, it’s head-in-the clouds John Lennon-esque stuff, ending with repeated affirmations of “I can see.” Come “Begin Again,” Jones goes back full coffee house, which can be a bit of a let down, although it will equally prove a comforting return to form for steady fans. Her music is typically described as “jazz,” and folks in New Orleans couldn’t laugh harder at this. Take a musical style that was originally shocking in its unconventional freedom, strip it of virtually all its adventurous spirit, and you have Norah Jones. That isn’t to completely discount what she does, just to give a sense of her particular niche. She’s the Volvo of jazz, and she plays the part very well, as comes out particularly on “It Was You.” This is the type of music that would be highly suspicious if you’re not married with kids in the suburbs. Everything seems a bit too safe, carefully moderated, diluted to a point at which all the latent vibrance of the music is largely lost.

“A Song With No Name” harks back to the sluggish, contemplative wandering of the opening number, but in a way more in tune with Jones’ typical aesthetic. It’s a hippie musing evoking the likes of TIm Buckley. In a way, Jones’ open embrace of everything lackluster somehow ends up suiting her quite well, as it makes her fleeting moments of spark really register, largely in part to the relative dullness of the backdrop. This comes out especially on “Uh Oh,” in which Jones’ inflections have a quirk that’s almost like an ultra lite version of Joanna Newsom. “Wintertime” gets a bit country, but ever so slightly, well fitting with Jones’ overall artistic behavior. One thing you can always count on is subtlety, and you get plenty here. This is a song designed for a thoughtful Sunday afternoon, almost like Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” translated into American English.

“Just a Little Bit” comes as a refreshing spark, beginning with an introduction that’s actually “jazzy.” When Jones starts singing, she takes on such character with her fleeting intonations that it’s a real show. The beauty is in the details, and it shows that Norah Jones likely disowns the commercial framework precisely because she has no need for it, comfortable in her own trade to flow smoothly as is. And “Begin Again” is the perfect display of just that.

Begin Again” is available April 19 on Apple Music.