It’s very 2006 to work with producer Danger Mouse as some kind of credibility move, but Norah Jones is usually at her best when she looks to the past for inspiration. If Little Broken Hearts‘s tempo is still too consistently staid to allow Jones to shake off those lingering “boring” tags for good, the overall style of the album marks a significant departure for the singer, who sounds far more uninhibited and spry than on any of her previous solo outings. That Danger Mouse reins in some of his more show-offy tendencies makes it one of his strongest efforts in some time as well, making for a mutually beneficial partnership.
The album’s highly stylized approach is apparent from even its fantastic cover art, which positions Jones as a wild-haired vixen from a ‘60s exploitation flick. And Danger Mouse’s trademark influences from that era, like psychedelic rock and spaghetti-western flourishes, give texture to the arrangements on tracks like “Travelin’ On” and lead single “Happy Pills.” These elements are always in service to the songs Danger Mouse has co-written with Jones, from the reverb-heavy mic effect on the emotionally distant “She’s 22” to the feisty two-step of “Out on the Road.” While his instincts as a producer have always been strong, Danger Mouse shows a real sense of restraint here, never overshadowing the narratives or tone of individual songs or pulling focus from Jones.
For her part, Jones’s songwriting is particularly pointed, and her vocal performances continue to stray from the languid phrasing of Come Away with Me‘s cabaret pop. She’s staunchly refused to name the “fiction writer” she recently broke up with, but the aftermath of that relationship informs each of the album’s songs, and it’s those that include authentic, first-person details that are the strongest. “Say Goodbye” hinges on casual deceptions (“You don’t have to tell the truth/‘Cause if you do, I’ll tell it too”), which Jones highlights as her coy phrasing slides effortlessly into her upper register in the song’s refrain. Her sultry delivery on “Miriam” is among the best of her career, as she flatters the proverbial other woman before revealing her true, more sinister intent: “Miriam, that’s such a pretty name.”
It’s not that Jones hasn’t confronted this kind of heartbreak before: The classic country tunes on the Little Willies’ For the Good Times from just a few months back covered similar themes with panache. Nor is it a matter of Jones’s playing B-movie dress-up with a producer whose aesthetic might provide something for her to hide behind, since neither she nor Danger Mouse make the album all about his production choices. Instead, by revealing some carefully chosen, deeply personal details and by building elaborate façades for the sake of drama, Jones has crafted her headiest, most complex album to date.