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Norah Jones isn’t the first person to base an album off of a recent heartbreak, but she does it masterfully by alternating between the personas of a lovelorn victim and a wicked woman scorned. Little Broken Hearts, her fifth studio album, is a pop record with a grief-ridden, drizzly shadow cast over it. In the past she’s worked with Gillian Welch, Outkast, Foo Fighters, and other artists ranging all across the stylistic spectrum, and for Little Broken Hearts she collaborated with Danger Mouse, who produced and co-wrote the album’s dozen tracks. But this wasn’t their first musical partnership either– she made a few appearances on his spaghetti western-inspired album Rome last year. Based on all of those projects, her solo work, and the music made in conjunction with her country band The Little Willies, she’s made it clear that she can work confidently and successfully with a versatile palette of genres and artists.
But her most recent production isn’t as much about showing off the diversity of her talent as it is about the captivating force of her songwriting and vocal abilities. On this album, the singer-songwriter’s material sounds smooth as ever but leaves behind subtlety. Between the wistful album title and lyrics that address a messy, emotional breakup head on, Jones comes through as being perfectly honest with herself and her audience, and that makes for a new level of power and in her music. The lyrics come across sometimes as eloquent diary entries, sometimes as a monologue to her wrongdoers, and sometimes simply as pretty poetry– the best example of the latter would be the album’s title track. “Little Broken Hearts”, like many of the other songs from the album, provides an air of finality, of some impending and dreaded end. It touches on a sense of despair created by some long, wrenching struggle. The song also mentions revenge, which serves as a keyword to the album and even as a backdrop to the cover art: Jones’s portrait was modeled after the poster for Russ Meyer’s 1965 film Mudhoney, a B-movie filled with violent, graphic vengeance. According to her website, Jones was captivated by the visuals of the vintage poster, which was hanging in Danger Mouse’s studio, and the sauciness of the films’s actresses is mirrored in Jones’s seductress pose.
Along with revenge, Jones creates overtones of envy in tracks like “She’s 22”, where she deals with other conflicting feelings but ends by admitting “I’d like to see you happy”. Jones’s version of envy is more forlorn than it is aggressive, and for this reason her artful sadness is more appealing. Jones is generally irresistible, straight from the album’s first notes in “Good Morning”, where her vocals are gentle and sweet, and then her mood transforms to dark and sultrily ominous in “Little Broken Hearts”. She’s always at her best when the music moves along at an amble; In “4 Broken Hearts” her vocals shine as she reveals her vulnerability over ghost-town guitar reverb: “And I tried to repay you/ But I only got scarred/ She’ll be breaking your fall/ And I’ll be building new walls”. And then the way Jones serenades her victim in “Miriam” makes it the most deliciously evil track of the album; it’s not hard to imagine Jones running a blood red fingernail across the girl’s throat while whispering the poisonous lullaby into her ear.