Little Broken Hearts
Blue Note, 2012
REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/01/2012
Can you believe that it has already been ten years since Norah Jones released her breakout album Come Away With Me? Jones' smooth, warm, poppy jazz was something everyone wanted to embrace in 2002. Yet as lovingly huggable as Come Away With Me was, 2012’s Little Broken Hearts is a plumb into the well of ruthless breakup depression experienced by a scorned lover; it’s also about as cuddly as a cactus.
It seems that most singer-songwriter material is born out of some personal tragedy. A lot of ink has been spilled on artists’ scratch pads about drug abuse, bad bosses, and relationship breakups. Reportedly, Norah Jones wrote Little Broken Hearts in response to a breakup with her boyfriend. Its material is dark, infused by the electronic fuzziness that producer Danger Mouse adds, and its track listing mirrors the roller coaster ride of emotions that a breakup produces. There are the “how-and-why” questions, the "I hate you" songs, and even a couple of those moments where everything is going to be alright and you can move on, only to awaken the next morning wondering how to go on. Danger Mouse and Jones create an album that is decidedly minimal on instrumentation and heavy on low toned drums and bass to drive the sound. Sonic comparisons that come to mind are Lindsey Buckingham's minimalist ravings on Tusk, or more recently, T-Bone Burnett's production of Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.
Many songs show the brooding state Jones was in while writing for the album. The opening track "Good Morning" opens with arpeggios being played on a piano which is then countered by a guitar that is out of rhythm with the arpeggios for the rest of the song. The out of rhythm instrumentation and contradictory lyrics embody the "new day" attitude one would wake up with in her situation, but betray the uncertainty she is clearly feeling about the future. "She's 22" is another minimalist song with one guitar, synths, and vocals that are run through an effect that sounds slightly like AM radio. Norah is right up in the microphone lamenting her lost love and she asks a poignant question that just seems to hang in the air every time; “Does she make you happy?”
While most of the songs take a slow pace, Jones does break it up a few times. "4 Broken Hearts," while slow, is one of the most dynamic songs with a heavy rhythm section and has Norah breaking out of her brooding whispery voice only briefly to belt out a few soulful notes in the refrain that take you by surprise. "Out On The Road" is the ninth track and is the first really bright song yet, extolling the therapeutic virtues of taking a nice long drive heading towards nowhere. (And when you have made as much money as Norah has by now, you can afford the gas.) "Happy Pills," the first single from the album, is also upbeat, sweeping the cobwebs of depression away. Here, Norah is convincing herself that the breakup wasn't so bad and that getting him out of her head is a good thing.
Yet after the upbeat and hopeful ninth and tenth tracks, on the eleventh, “Miriam,” depression returns with a vengeance. This is one of the most hateful – and even homicidal – songs you will ever hear outside of the death metal genre. One can only imagine that Norah is talking directly to the woman who lured her man away and the pure hatred shines through with no restraint. To wrap up the album, the final song returns to the same unsure optimism as the first track and suggests that maybe it’s “All A Dream.”
The arc of the album does well to show the psychological ups and downs that a breakup can emote. At first glance, the minimalism and the slow pace of many of the songs can drag on. Yet if the combination of vengeful songwriting, minimalist production, and a smart track listing can be appreciated, Little Broken Hearts could turn out to be one of the better breakup albums produced.