‘Pick Me Up Off the Floor’: Norah Jones Fashions Light Listening From Dark Matters
Nine-time Grammy winner Norah Jones rose to fame with a broadly accessible blend of jazz, pop, and Americana that drew both critical acclaim and commercial success. Over the years, she collaborated with such diverse artists as OutKast, Foo Fighters, and Herbie Hancock, before returning to her piano jazz roots on 2016’s “Day Breaks.” After touring that record, she recorded a series of singles in short sessions with illustrious musicians such as Mavis Staples, Rodrigo Amarante, and Thomas Bartlett. Those sessions ended up yielding a bulk of surprisingly cohesive material that has been compiled into “Pick Me Up Off the Floor,” an album that includes musical collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. The latest songs are unprecedentedly dark in their subject matter, yet light in their overall feel, adding a new depth to Jones’ tried and tested sound.
Opener “How I Weep” is an intimate, melancholy number with Jones’ distinctive voice fluttering and breathing up close between her subdued, la-di-da utterances of the titular line. From the onset, this is a dark affair, but one of earth tones rather than pitch black. Jones goes on, “And I sing and I laugh and I laugh… But inside I weep,” as strings envelop her upon the change of sentiment. A monotonous bassline plods along, conveying a sense of existential drudgery, as Jones plays a tastefully moderate drama queen, and the band plays on, unflinching in their mellow, timeless stylings. “Flame Twin” settles into a distilled blues groove, just playful enough to fit the suggestive but opaque lyrics, delivered in measured, concise snippets. An organ enters at key moments, and swells in the chorus, when the perennially stoic Jones lets loose in a rare, relatively fiery moment.
While attempts to craft jazz stylings into easy listening pop are typically exercises in compromise, there occasionally come along punchy and engaging exceptions. “Hurts to Be Alone” is built around an instrumental refrain that shortens and lengthens at whim, giving an elegant obliqueness to the song. Backing vocals chime in, trembling, on the line, “It hurts to be alone,” as if proving the sentiment through the action. Jones took inspiration on this album from the poetry she reads to her children, including the likes of Dr. Sues and Shel Silverstein, and one can hear it in lines like “Can you make me disappear? / At least for once or twice a year.” Simple repetition of the eponymous phrase drives the point home, and spooky keys and sustained vocal harmonies dwell on the thought.
There have been country elements to Jones’ music since the beginning, and “Heartbroken, Day After” sees their return, with prominent pedal steel that creeps in and persists as Jones insists, “Hey, hey / It’s gonna be ok / At least that’s what I tell myself.” The halfhearted bottling in of emotions returns to the feel of the opening number. The steel guitar is at once desperate and serene, with sweeping, sustained notes bearing no end in sight, but extending so far they must lead somewhere. A weak point comes when Jones veers off script and tries to riff off of the vibe, as she isn’t a very loose performer, and her inhibited ad libs are unflattering. Luckily, such instances are few and short-lived. “Say No More” echoes the stiff swing of “Flame Twin,” adding modest but invaluable horns to the mix. The band goes off and indulges in piano jazz drivelry, and Jones delivers vaguely flirtatious lyrics that culminate in “Maybe I’m deranged.” Her delivery is the musical equivalent of walking head high with a secret.
“This LIfe” continues in the spirit of the opener and “Heartbroken, Day After,” with Jones cooly going through the motions, having accepted doom and gloom as the modus operandi, now declaring, “This life as we know it is over.” Backing vocals add a new lushness, and Jones moderates energy with a nuanced push and pull. “To Live” brings a happy thought, “I’ll live in this moment / And find my true place,” with a fittingly cheery melody that neatly resolves as expected. There appears a begrudging quality to her tone, however, as horns spur her along in her existential toil. “I’m Alive,” produced by Jeff Tweedy, is a bit more upbeat, with a strummed acoustic guitar backdrop, and electric instrumentation that gives a slightly rockier feel. While many of Jones’ musings throughout the album can apply equally to the individual or society, the lyrics on this song take on an unprecedentedly political tone. Jones dons a female voice of protest, singing, “She’s crushed by thoughts / At night of men / Who want her rights / And usually win.” The pivotal moment comes when she adds, “But she’s alive.” Ultimately, however, Jones carries her thoughts with the same general indifference that is ever-present in her modest musical stylings:“It’s ok / And it’s not / Maybe things will change.”
“Were You Watching” features an expressive violin that alternates between Celtic fiddling and drone. Jones asks the eponymous question again and again, describing successive stages in a deteriorating relationship, her bitter words tenderly delivered. The climactic repetition comes in shifting harmonies, making for perhaps the most dramatic song of the set. “Stumble On My Way” is the sound of getting back on track, a bit like “To Live,” with more pedal steel. Jones trudges along with a touch of gospel spirit in her vocal harmonies, and a bit of spring in her step. Finally, “Heaven Above,” another Tweedy production, finds Jones moving through her melodies as if forcing them along with great effort, after having slowed to a dead halt. The album began dragging, and after eleven songs, this is where we’ve reached. There’s light at the end, however, as Jones finds solace in a memory, and the band plays it out with a sublime relaxation of manner.
The major triumph of “Pick Me Up Off the Floor” is how it effectively captures an elusive mood of comfortable despondency. Save for scattered, tongue-in-cheek diversions, the songs are decidedly bleak, yet without an inkling of self-pity. Jones sings on with a cool composure so unshaking in its resolve that it seems to laugh in the face of adversity. She offers measured reflections instead of lugubrious lamentations, and her particular strain of music is the perfect conduit for such expression. With her classic voice tone and elegant piano playing, she draws from jazz and Americana traditions that confer a certain respectability, without ever receding into dusty esoterica. The measured accessibility of her musical stylings parallels the resigned sobriety of her attitude. The latest songs are more poetic variations of the same sounds Jones is best known for. They articulately zero in on an overriding darkness, and ultimately make light of it.
“Pick Me Up Off the Floor” is available June 12 on Apple Music.