Not Too Late
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2007, Volume 14, #2
Written by John Metzger
The cover of Norah Jones’ third outing Not Too Late provides the first indication of her increasing restlessness as an artist. Rather than boasting the sort of glamour shot that typically is affixed to albums by Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling, pop musicians, the photo that graces the front of Not Too Late glimpses Jones from an unusual angle as she strikes a quizzical look while sitting in her black-and-white striped dress before a red background. The message, of course, is that her new endeavor is darker and more mysterious than its predecessors, and considering the manner in which Not Too Late begins, such assumptions wouldn’t be out of line. Opening cut Wish I Could tells the tale of a love triangle that is set amidst the backdrop of the Iraq war, and a haunting cello accompaniment painstakingly echoes the tears of mourning that frame the gentle devastation of her words. On the subsequent Sinkin’ Soon, Jones coyly addresses the fate of New Orleans and the nation: "In a boat that’s built of sticks and hay/We drifted from the shore/With a captain who’s too proud to say/That he dropped the oar," she sings as the song assumes at least some of the unnerving spookiness of Tom Waits’ work.
The rest of Not Too Late also is shaded with political overtones, but at times, Jones conveys her thoughts on the state of the world in such a polite fashion that it’s easy to miss her point. In a sense, she seems to be sidestepping controversy by treading lightly over prickly terrain. By doing so, however, she ultimately diminishes the power of the overarching narrative that she worked so hard to establish in the album’s early moments. This, of course, is a typical failing of an artist who is attempting to achieve personal growth without alienating a sizeable chunk of her audience, but the other problem plaguing the effort is that Jones simply has yet to come into her own as a songwriter. After all, Not Too Late is the first outing on which she had a hand in writing all of the material. Although she shows a lot of promise, her flaws are equally apparent. Of course, who would expect Jones to forsake completely the innocuous yet utterly lovely pleasantries that made her famous, but more of the adventurous spirit that is found in the endeavor’s first two tracks would have helped her case considerably.
Unfortunately, as Not Too Late progresses, Jones increasingly retreats to the safety net of her softly pedaled, jazz- and folk-imbued ruminations. Still, the outing has its moments, and as always, Jones’ irresistible charm paints the material in warm, comforting shades of grey. On the soulful lead single Thinking about You, for example, Chicago-style horns become color to an arrangement that draws upon the easy-going sophistication of Steely Dan. The subsequent Broken bears hints of Bob Dylan and The Band, and its minimalist orchestration is sublimely moody. Even the hushed, country-oriented intonations of both Wake Me Up and Rosie’s Lullaby succeed, despite Jones’ simplistic and unsurprising approach.
There’s little doubt that in crafting Not Too Late Jones made an effort to broaden her horizons and escape the trappings of her fame and fortune. At the same time, she undercut all of her forward-thinking steps by taking them too tentatively. Perhaps with her next endeavor, she will gain the confidence to follow through on her aspirations. In the meantime, there are more than enough hints lurking within Not Too Late that demonstrate that she’s capable of making a much grander statement. Considering the exorbitant amount of money that she already has made for her label, she certainly has earned the right to pursue whatever path she chooses. ½
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box