The sound of a million noughties dinner parties, Norah Jones carries with her some reputational baggage. For all that she is, in some quarters, a serious “artiste” (not for nothing is she on Blue Note), her voice will be perennially Parky-on-Radio 2, a soporific Sunday morning of the soul, no matter what musical spin she puts on it. She sold by the bucketload the same way cornflakes sell by the bucketload – for being the blandest, safest option on the menu.
Begin Again, on the other hand, has some rougher edges to it. The light-touch, semi-casual way in which it has been recorded (short collaborative sessions from song sketches) allows pure musicianship to come to the fore. Nothing here has been focus grouped into radio-optimised mush and, in places, soul can be detected.
My Heart Is Full, which opens the album with a catalogue of self-reflection and, ultimately, empowerment, might err to the trite – “My mind is free / My hands are tied … I will rise!” – and might be melodically a little dreary, but the semi-improvised feel alerts the listener that something interesting may happen.
And so it does. The title track is light bluesy piano jazz with some life about it, Jones making like KT Tunstall fronting Bruce Hornsby & The Range. Organ and brass coax It Was You into a nice moody shape and loosen up the almost very nearly vaguely avant-garde closer Just A Little Bit.
There’s the occasional concession to less middlebrow, more modern genres too. Artificial beats back Uh Oh, a song on which Jones’ expression of dread is punctuated by Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy plinkiness.
A Song With No Name (why not go the whole hog Norah and call it “Untitled”?) sees her get her country on and start musing what she’d do “if I had a knife”. (By the tone of things, probably just rustle up a round of sandwiches.) It’s gentle alt-country with a little bite, the kind of thing that wouldn’t go amiss in the hands of Jenny Lewis or Neko Case. However, not even Jeff Tweedy’s country guitar can save telephone hold music like Wintertime.
The album doesn’t hang around – the whole thing’s over in under half an hour – and the casualness of it more or less wins the day. Over-cooked in the studio Begin Again could have had all the soul drained out of it, but as it stands it retains the rawness of a live performance.
A Norah Jones album no longer “wafts discreetly around the room like something manufactured by Airwick” as one critic once put it, though it would still go well with a cheeky Pinot Grigio after you’ve put the kids to bed.