it’s hard not to fall in love with Norah Jones. The mysterious, raven-haired Texan is the daughter of iconic sitarist Ravi Shankar and a sometime student of jazz piano at the University of North Texas. Her cross-genre appeal has garnered a fan base as diverse as her influences, her dulcet voice and tactful piano earning strong if restrained praise.

Her debut album, Come Away With Me, captivated the hearts and ears of dewy-eyed young girls, coffee-shop patrons and mellow jazz lovers alike. Her next effort, Feels Like Home, wasn’t quite as successful either critically or commercially, but it remained consistent with her debut: earnest piano gently defined by percussive stand-up bass and minimal drums.

Not Too Late, seems to come from another time and place entirely – and not always for the better. In fact, the album suffers in comparison to her last two albums, which were marked by a measured consistency.

The minimalist opening track, “Wish I Could,” sets a mellow tone for the album from which Jones rarely deviates. However, in their own way, the next half dozen tracks are varied and distinctive. The plodding, show-tune sound of “Sinkin’ Soon” comes complete with misplaced trumpet hits, banjo and, like many other tracks on the album, strangely na’ve lyrics. “We’re an oyster cracker on the stoop / and the honey in the tea / we’re the sugar cubes / one lump or two / in the black coffee,” Jones coos.

The brilliance of another cut, “The Sun Doesn’t Like You,” sounds like typical Norah, reminiscent of songs like Come Away With Me’s “Nightingale” but notably more upbeat. “So tonight we can build a fire / in the open field past the razor wire,” she sings. Grounding ethereal love songs in natural imagery is a staple of Jones’s music, and for good reason – it works.

“Not My Friend” is the sonic equivalent of a sad-looking half-carat diamond ring. Delicate acoustic picking sparkles in the background while Jones delivers some of her sweetest, most affecting material in a broken lilt: “You are not my friend / I cannot pretend anymore,” she sings, “You found a place no one should ever go.”

The watered-down first single, “Thinking About You,” marks the beginning of the album’s demise. A mellow, unremarkable groove underscores overly simplistic lyrics and a warmed-over sound. The songs that follow are a series of well-orchestrated blunders. The observational “Little Room,” an unlikely song about sex, trips through silly lyrics like “There’s bars on the window / And if there were a fire we’d burn up for sure” before finishing with a half-hearted whistle.

It gets worse. At first the lilting “My Dear Country” sounds like it belongs in an animated feature until the lyrics float lazily to the surface. “I love the things that you’ve given me / And most of all that I am free / To have a song that I can sing on election day.” Politics and sentimental piano ballads don’t mix. The effect is tackier than a plastic purple ring from a gumball machine.

Jones tries to create something truly artful on Not Too Late, but there simply isn’t enough passion behind her songs to bring them together. After the disappointing second half dwindles to a close, the title grows more ironic. Jones is still more than capable of producing albums of better quality, but Not Too Late exposes her inconsistencies. Whether she can regain what kept her first two albums from sounding like her third remains to be seen.

Norah Jones
Not Too Late

Blue Note

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