There are few finer voices in popular music than that of Norah Jones. Apparently without effort she can tweak its timbre to suit almost any genre: blues, folk, jazz, soul and especially country – she possesses a steely twang reminiscent of Dolly, Tammy and Patsy. With 50m album sales in 10 years or so, it’s a voice that has brought her huge commercial success – but also a reputation for a certain blandness (and the cruel soubriquet, Snorah Jones). Which is perhaps why in recent years the New York singer and songwriter has sought to move out of her comfort zone.
For her recent album, Little Broken Hearts, she recruited the hip (and sometimes hip-hop) producer, Danger Mouse. The result, while being recognisably a Norah Jones album, has more gradations of light and shade than we have come to expect. What might this spell for her brace of shows in London, of which this was the first?
To begin with, it was all somewhat underwhelming. As Jones’s voice cruised gently along, buoyed by the immaculately crafted and finely textured sound of her four-piece band, couples entwined their arms and snuggled back in their seats. The scene seemed set for an evening of typically sweet, dreamy, happy-sad songs. And yet, slowly, subtly and incrementally, the mood shifted and the music began to cast a spell, its sparseness and restraint generating an aura of quiet concentration.
“Take It Back”, from the new album, had an insistent, hypnotic riff, while another new song, “Miriam” – a dark tale of jealousy and vengeance – progressed with the power and grace of a great ship of state. Her treatment of old favourites, meanwhile, was clever and imaginative: “Don’t Know Why”, delivered solo from an upright piano, was crackly and bleak; “Come Away With Me” was a country waltz with a strong streak of melancholy. The meticulous economy with which all of this was performed generated a mood of peculiar intensity – almost, one might say, edge-of-the-seat stuff.
It would be an exaggeration to say that this show was evidence of some kind of radical reinvention for Jones. But it was certainly suggestive of a shift in emphasis, and heartening to hear that impeccably stylish voice exploring a broader emotional palette.