Everyone thought Norah Jones was an absolute visionary when she burst onto the scene, mostly, of course, because she was so old-fashioned. Her museum-piece songs, buoyed by that bleary-eyed voice and a songwriting team from the New York Jew school of N’Orleans jazz, were like catnip to a generation of push-pin music fans. Early reactions to her third album assail her for getting too confident in her niche — where’s the gamy makeover, the Danger Mouse mash-ups, the creepily paternal producer of her first two albums? (Oh right, he’s dead.) Instead, “Not Too Late” sees Jones as cool and cushy as she’s ever been, mic in one hand, glass of bourbon in the other, as the world just happens to bow down at her feet.
Heck, she even writes the damn songs this time — all of them. “My Dear Country” is a scathing protest song in Olde limerick guise: “ ’Twas Halloween and the ghosts were out / And everywhere they’d go they’d shout / And though I covered my eyes I knew / They’d go away.” Anyone remember what happened three days after Halloween ’04? Her voice plays coy behind the queasy piano line — will she take him to task, will those keys crack under her white knuckles — but she never even mentions the tyrant’s name. Jones keeps her trademark subtlety deftly in tow.
Sometimes things get a bit too subtle, though, as on lead single “Thinking About You,” which easy-listenings its way into the great tradition of Jones’s songs that have a prayer of radio play. But unlike Jesse Harris, composer of the Grammy-devouring “Don’t Know Why,” Jones isn’t a pop songwriter, which makes her ploy for slow-dance supremacy a bit spurious. “I’ll be thinking about you,” she repeats seven times — out of the 16 lyrics in the entire piece. Why yes, it does feel rather empty.
Thankfully, Jones is a total pip in other modes — from the schoolyard prayer of the marimba-flavored “Not My Friend” to the Skynyrd-aping tone poem “Broken.” “Sinkin’ Soon” is a Tin Pan Alley-esque time-capsule with the most eyebrow-raising food imagery since the Beatles’ “Savoy Truffle”: “We’re the golden crust on the apple pie / That shines in the sun at noon / Like the wheel of cheese high in the sky / Well, we’re gonna be sinkin’ soon.” This is the only instance where Jones’s voice doesn’t work with the song as a whole — it’s too pretty, too lush, not old-crone enough for such a creaky, rattlin’-bones ditty. I guess we can still look forward to the Stevie Nicks cover.
Generally, though, the songs sound just as gorgeous as Jones’s pipes. Produced by her longtime songwriting partner Lee Alexander, the album gets a fuller sound from three-odd studio musicians per song than a fleet of Phil Spectors could ever accomplish. “Be My Somebody” is down-home bluegrass with an up-tempo Latin twist — and just the right touch of reverb to accentuate that delicious twang in Jones’s delivery. Elsewhere, “The Sun Doesn’t Like You” is more clandestine country in the vein of “Toes” from “Feels Like Home,” her second album. The undercurrent of grief and sorrow that ebbs beneath her more surface-level material is too visceral to seem anything but God-honest — “Someday we all have to die / But not now,” she sings on “The Sun Doesn’t Like You.”
And that’s what really sets Jones above her jazz-lite contemporaries: she isn’t just a voice for the notes to skip across. Even interpreting the songs of others on her first two albums, she drolled through the merriment of Townes Van Zandt’s “Be Here to Love Me,” shed a tear through the poignancy of Jesse Harris’s “Shoot the Moon,” and tapped her foot to the slickness of Tom Waits’s “Long Way Home.” Now, only 26 years old but ripe with the heartache of artists three times her age, only three albums into her already-legendary career and bearing the fortunes of an entire genre on her shoulders, she may have finally found her best songwriter: herself.