Norah Jones is the most fascinating boring musician working today. When Jones’ debut album Come Away With Me became a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning sensation, the moment represented something genuinely welcome: the triumph of the simple over the processed and the packaged. And Jones has continued to sell remarkably well, given that her kind of music is both difficult to classify and unlike almost anything else on top of the charts. Jones is ostensibly a rootsy singer-songwriter who works largely with jazz musicians, and over the course of her five albums she’s resisted any forced contemporizing or shotgun marriages with big-time hit-makers. Her 2009 record The Fall has a slightly rockier edge, and her latest, Little Broken Hearts, is a collaboration with popular producer Danger Mouse, but neither album is a radical break from the relaxed-fit easy-listening of Come Away With Me. It’s an odd phenomenon, really, the way that Jones has had such a profitable run with music so plain.
But Jones’ good taste, soulful voice, and overall pleasantness don’t make her actual music any more energizing. Little Broken Hearts definitely goes down smoothly, with Danger Mouse’s twinkly atmospherics and Jones’ whispery croon notching together like Lincoln Logs on songs like the album-opening “Good Morning,” the plucky “After The Fall,” and the shimmering title track. Still, it’s instructive to compare the sounds on Little Broken Hearts with some of the artists they resemble. Jones and Danger Mouse approach Gnarls Barkley territory on the spacey dance track “Say Goodbye,” get a little bit of the grit of Danger Mouse’s past collaborators The Black Keys on “Happy Pills,” bring some Neko Case-style torchiness to “4 Broken Hearts,” and ape Feist on the sparse “She’s 22.” But Jones lacks the charismatic pull of any of those acts. She never sounds inspired.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these songs; and give Jones and Danger Mouse credit for putting together an album that has actual flow and eclecticism, unlike Jones’ usual cautious, casual approach. But when Little Broken Hearts gets to the chugging “Out On The Road”—one of the rare tracks where the rhythm is brisk and Jones sounds like she’s having fun—it’s more obvious what’s missing from her music most of the time. Jones is good at what she does, but it never feels like something she burns to do. She’s nice, not necessary.