I wrote my last full-blown concert review almost exactly one year before the one that you’re currently reading, shortly after I saw L.A. producer/musical savant Flying Lotus play in front of a full house at the Royal Oak Music Theater.
That show came about a month after he dropped his atom bomb of a jazz/hip-hop/electronica-fusion album You’re Dead! to near universal critical acclaim, and his performance that night was — and continues to be — the only live musical event that has compelled me to start openly weeping (while sober, no less) from pure audiovisual stupefaction. In fact, my aesthetic sensibilities were so hyper-stimulated that I felt the need to put things in my review like “Flying Lotus is one of those artists … who seems to have reached as nearly as one can, however fleetingly, to perfection,” or that “I experienced something uncanny, something that I’m not sure I have the literary wherewithal to articulate.”
The fact that I finished the review shows, I think, that I had a bit more writerly panache than I was willing to own up to (so much so that I actually used the phrase “literary wherewithal” non-ironically), but I definitely wasn’t just stringing together a series of artistically-embellished critical exaggerations, either. Yes, I committed the mortal sin of referring to a piece of art as “perfect,” but, toward the end of the review, I made a very important qualification of that term which, I think, excuses the transgression: “perfection is a very different thing from being flawless.” Flying Lotus was perfect, in other words, because he possessed that irrational, quasi-magical ability “to reconfigure flaws and mistakes into a workable whole, shoring up the gaps with his own innovations,” to effortlessly weave what would be errors in any other context into a new musical logic of his own invention
Now, the reason I’m bringing up Flying Lotus and my review from last year is that, believe it or not, I learned that definition of “perfect” from listening to Norah Jones. Yes, that Norah Jones — the one whose name you can’t hear without having a venti Pumpkin Spice Latte™ violently erupt through the walls of your subconscious.
Back in 2002 — before a decade of aggressive Starbucksification made it impossible to publicly enjoy anything warm, mid-tempo or acoustic without being considered an agent of the counter-revolution — Norah Jones was occupying a niche which bore certain striking similarities to the one Flying Lotus is inhabiting right now in 2015. Her debut album Come Away With Me was a firm and entirely unexpected wake-up nudge for the genres it straddled, picked apart and stitched back together into an expertly knitted, toasty quilt of American popular music. It reminded jazz that people under the age of 60 would still pay money to hear a diminished chord if you dusted it off and bought it a new coat, and it reminded pop, folk and bluegrass that you could jam more than one feeling into a song when you actually used all twelve of the notes in the octave. Admittedly, the subdued piano, jazz brushes and husky singing that serve as Jones’s calling cards don’t compel you to get off your ass in the same way Flying Lotus’s synthesizers and chunky-smooth drum samples do, but you can’t help but walk away from You’re Dead! or Come Away With Me with the feeling that all is not lost in the world. They’re musical reminders that dead ends are man-made, and whether you tear down a wall or build yourself a staircase, with enough vision and technical skill you can always find a way to keep going forward. They might not be flawless, but they’re new, and that’s as close as music can get to perfect.
The problem with Norah Jones, though, is that somewhere in the post-Come Away With Me hype, she got lost in the maze. It’s hard to say why that is — maybe it was her old-fashioned humility and common decency (after sweeping the Grammies in 2003, she told Katie Couric “I felt like I went to somebody else’s birthday party and I ate all their cake. Without anybody else getting a piece”), maybe it was the Starbucksification (when your Blue Note record sells 26 million copies in the 21st century, it’s pretty hard to justify switching things up), or maybe the creative juju wasn’t really there in the first place (Jones only had two-and-a-half writing credits on that first album, after all, and her later discography is almost all original tunes) — but with the exception of a couple of brief bright spots like “Chasing Pirates” from The Fall, Jones has been banging her head against the same jazz-pop-fill-in-the-blank-fusion wall that she and her cowriters built back in 2002.
Now, depending on how we want to think about Norah Jones, that might not necessarily be a problem. If she’s just a chanteuse to you, just an incredibly talented lounge singer whose skills far exceed the confines of the genre she’s working in, then she can rest on her laurels and spend the rest of her days giving performances like the one she did at The Michigan Theater on Monday night. That is, of course, if you prefer your music to be of the anesthetic art object variety, and your idea of a good night involves going slack-jawed in front of a beautiful voice with no emotion behind it. But the fact that an audience member shushed me for humming along to a Puss N Boots song that included the lyrics “Hey, you, don’t tell me what to do” suggests where that idea of fun is headed. (It’s fascism).
I won’t talk too much more about Norah Jones’s performance on Monday because, again, you can’t argue with the anesthetic art object. It’s a dead-end that doesn’t even want to be a way out, and I’d rather spend my time looking for the artists who are swinging sledgehammers around.
The thing is, though, that Norah Jones could be one of those artists. She was back in 2002 — that’s why she won all those Grammies and sold 26 million records. That’s why people love her, and that’s why seeing her fade into the background behind her own band is a damn shame.
But you can do perfect, Norah Jones. We've all heard it before, and I just hope that on your next album and your next tour, you can start doing it again.