Those proclaiming this album the Booker T. grad's "departure" have clearly listened to their Norah Jones solely whilst sipping frappucinos between penning fan fiction in a Starbucks. Missed her giddy honky-tonk detour, The Little Willies, did you? Or El Madmo, her smirky, smart-ass punk-pop time-kill? Or "Sinkin' Soon" off 2007's Not Too Late, wherein she put on Tom Waits' ashtray fedora and offered just about the softest, sweetest jab at A Man Called Dubya imaginable? Perhaps they escaped some critics' ears, because The Fall ain't no departure at all—just the final baby step away from the piano, which she no longer needs to make her brand of tasteful, pleasant and still altogether decaffeinated country-tinged, jazz-soaked buttoned-down pop.
It's easy to see where the head-scratchers got thrown: Jones, who covered Waits' "The Long Way Home" on her second album, has rounded up his sidemen (guitarists Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel) for cred and comfort; they're good at making "weird" palatable. But Jones' sonic experiments—a little more echo here, a little more reverb there, some propulsive percussion to wake the lightly napping—don't obscure the absolute lack of tension in her songwriting, a chore she shares with Okkervil River's Will Sheff, Ryan Adams and, still, Jesse Harris. Metal Machine Music this ain't; girl's got a franchise to protect.
And so, yet again, she's clever and cute but never cutting, whether she's mourning the loss of one relationship ("You've ruined me now/But I liked it") or addressing the fate of another ("If I touched myself/The way you touched me...Then I wouldn't need you"); all her fuck-offs sound like movie-studio valentines. Only at the end, on the jaunty throwaway "Man of the Hour," does she lighten up and let loose: "It's him or me, that's what he said," she sing-speaks through a smirk, "but I can't choose between a vegan and a pothead/So I chose you/Because you're sweet and you give me lots of lovin'/And you eat meat.") Took me 19 listens through to realize she didn't say, "And you eat me." Which would have been funnier.
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