It’s not like she took her Grammys and ran with ‘em: Ever since she took over the pop charts back in 2002 with her smooth-ass jazz-pop smash Come Away With Me, angel-voiced vixen Norah Jones has been gently toying with her soccer-mom-approved style—flirting with roots-rock, country and psychedelia, collaborating with folks like Ryan Adams, Foo Fighters, Dolly Parton and Andre 3000. But her most radical move came last year with the Rome project, a collection of symphonic Spaghetti-western tunes spearheaded by Italian composer Daniele Luppi and indie producer extraordinaire Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse). She only appeared briefly, but her impact was devastating: Jones hadn’t sounded this sexy in years, her smoky croon wafting in like a cool breeze on tracks like the orchestral epic “Black.”
Little Broken Hearts, Jones’ fifth studio album, picks up right where Rome left off, with Burton in the producer’s chair, casting his trademark ‘60s spy-film glow over nearly every recorded inch. Inspired by a devastating break-up with a mysterious “fiction writer,” Jones clearly aimed to exorcise some lyrical demons—and the raw, heartbreaking simplicity of her words pierces like a knife in the gut: “I’m alone now, and I like the way it feels,” Jones aches on the surprisingly nimble “After the Fall,” engulfed by simmering strings and spidery tremolo. “You couldn’t come through, and I’m too far gone.”
This romantic devastation no doubt impacted Jones’ newly noir-ish focus—Little Broken Hearts feels sonically and thematically unified in a way her previous albums never have. But it’s just as likely she simply wanted to shake things up: After all, you don’t recruit a producer like Danger Mouse and expect subtlety. Burton’s spooky, dramatic vision is certainly a welcome change-of-pace, and it pays off marvelously when the duo (who co-wrote all tracks and played the bulk of the instrumentation) stumble upon musical ideas that match the intensity of Jones’ lyrics. “Say Goodbye” is almost annoyingly Danger Mouse-y, built on rainbows of spaghetti-western guitar drizzle and a withered bassline, but it’s pretty damn rattling, nonetheless. The lushly layered “After the Fall” could be a career highlight for both parties.
But Little Broken Hearts is too much mood-setting and not enough song. Burton’s singular production style has resulted in some of the past decade’s most remarkable pop moments—and his work on The Black Keys’ recent El Camino was phenomenal—but here, it often sounds predictable and overly familiar (the sleepy title track, the slow-building “Take it Back”), as if Jones simply stumbled upon a hard drive of unused instrumental Broken Bells b-sides and laid down some vocals. Burton’s presence dominates— distractingly so—and as a bulk of the material lurches along in a foggy, minor key haze, it’s tough to sit through as a whole without checking your watch.
Norah Jones’ spirit may be deflated, but why should her music follow suit?