To take Norah Jones away from her piano may strike many as being as bad an idea as taking the stash of marijuana away from the Grateful Dead. But my, my. The girl’s grown out of her Tori Amos-gone-jazz music that I had no time, energy or ears for and The Fall is the rather welcome end-product. I wouldn’t be surprised if all those sensitive boys in their winterwear with their emotive girls cry ‘Judas!’ to Norah’s fourth album. It’s soft rock tending towards the shimmery zone where guitars cohabit with great vocals.
We start with the throbbing playfulness of ‘Playing pirates’. No tinkling nonsense. The soothing voice climbs up the rope provided by the pulsating notes of the Wurlitzer organ and we follow Norah when she breathes out, “Oh my mind’s racing from chasing pirates/And I don’t know how to slow it down.” I find myself shimmying.
‘Even though’ is a quiet stop at the lounge — the musical parts being more than the musical whole, a problem with ‘serious’ musicians keen to show off their expertise that their ‘let’s make a song’ rock’n’roll counterparts usually don’t share. So you hear a grating guitar deep in the background that suddenly disappears, the Wurlitzer reappears, a 6-string Tick Tack bass hovers while a....
After which all is forgiven. Co-written with Ryan Adams, ‘Light as a feather’ is a lighthouse of a song, blipping its light in forest-like surroundings populated by sinister synth and guitar hums. But topping it all is Norah’s voice and singing style. The rock-ish element is captured in its full force as the track seems to stand on the edge of a precipice toying with a dangerous idea. The words, “While the seasons will undo your soul/ Time forgives us and it takes control/ We separate our things to put us back together/We’re light as a feather/Heavy as the weather,” mean what they say. I would rate this as Norah’s finest song till date, in which she uses her talent for lengthening and shortening lines, pausing and riding the music with her voice to string out a compelling sonic drama. Do keep your ears perked up for the ‘Stairway to heaven’ style pipes-sound on synth. It works.
In ‘Young blood’, there’s a change of tempo. The chugga-chugga rhythm echoes the theme of the track: creeping age and old lovers. The faux-folk charm of ‘I wouldn’t need you’, more reminiscent of Norah’s heavy breathing-style that usually irritates me, leaves me with a smile. Perhaps that’s because the song’s couched in this nice album. Or maybe because the song has nice little John Donne-esque metaphysical twists to it — “If I could see my face/Without the tragedy/ Then I wouldn’t need you.” — pointing to the real reason for taking a lover: to love oneself through his or her ‘reflected’ glow.
‘Waiting’ plucks its way on a guitar and plonks its way on a glockenspiel (a fancier sounding xylophone). ‘It’s gonna be’ takes a snippet from Jon Lord’s snazzy’n’deep classic keyboards riff in Deep Purple’s ‘Black night’ and turns it into a jazzy, fingerclickin’ affair. ‘You’ve ruined me’ is a fine ditty, but do I detect a dulcimer-strained appeal to be abused when Norah sings, “You’ve ruined me now/ But I liked it/ But I’m ruined/ Do you have a plan?/ Cos I’m in your hands”? Naah. More John Donne stuff methinks.
‘Back to Manhattan’ is a New York lounge song. You can see a much older Ally McBeal with wrinkles in the wrong places holding her last martini and swaying to this very swayable song. A generation earlier, this song would have been done by Joni Mitchell. ‘Stuck’ splutters as a good-natured, sentimental song, while ‘Tell yer mama’ is a multiple-Grammy-winning New Yorker singing a hokey-pokey song for fun.
The Fall wins major points from me because Norah’s got out of her very successful but wearily stereotypical heavy-breathing, piano-playing rut. There are guitar pedals on this album and most importantly, she’s opening her mouth now to let out more than just sighs and hums.