Begin Again is the latest from award-winning singer-songwriter Norah Jones. Hot off the exhaustive touring and promotion of her last LP Day Breaks (2017), Jones has spent the last year covertly working on her latest material. Interestingly, the album is comprised of seven individual vignettes or snapshots from a year of work with various collaborators. Making the point of working without restriction and following ideas into any direction, Jones also aimed for speed. Each song on the album was written in no more than three days. This all obviously runs counter to the more common production practice of spending several months working on the pieces of an album as a whole. It sounds like it could be jarring, but Begin Again is remarkably smooth and cohesive from start to finish.
“My Heart is Full” opens the album on a decidedly ethereal note. Aside from an atmospheric soundscape, the only thing in the way of instrumentation is a slow heartbeat of a kick drum. Eventually piano appears but it’s Jones’ vocal and the “organic” delay of the backup singers that’s truly captivating. The refrain of “are we broken?” is almost haunting.
Second is the album’s title track, a bouncy albeit pensive piano number. The track is a more conventional jazz fare equipped with virtuoso walking piano lines with double bass and drums. It’s an energetic contemplation, this time Jones asking “can we believe, can we begin again?”
“It Was You” is another slow and jazzy track. It’s slower but at the same time it’s dreamier without being overly melancholic. The subtle brass and keys add undeniable flavour to what’s already an impressive track. Sophisticated piano work dominates the album but it plays a more of a second fiddle here compared to say the title track.
“A Song With No Name” takes you on a detour from jazz band to quiet acoustic folk guitars. With little more to say about about the sparse instrumentation, Jones’ vocals fit perfectly as with the rest of the album. The lyrics seem to point to a woman pondering the love of her significant other or some other source of despondency. While it’s very well polished like the rest of the album, it’s certainly a minimalist piece.
“Uh Oh” is a clear standout track. Electronic instruments dominate, but they forge a more modern pop framework for Jones’ vocals to slot into. Everything in the track just works and perfectly plays its part – whether it’s the super groovy rhythm section, the subtle string stings, or the facetious backing chants of “uh oh”. The song is almost like a sarcastic retort to someone in an argument.
“Wintertime” is another example of Jones’ versatility. It has to be a sign of a brave artist to follow the most accessible “poppy” song of an album with a slow folk track laced with the twang and slide of country guitars. Jones barely changes her vocal delivery and yet slides into the different genre without any hint of discomfort. Lyrically, the song is on par with the rest of the album and is demonstrative of Jones’ ability to turn a phrase; “in the wintertime there’s a kind of light I only get from you”.
“Just A Little Bit” closes the album in suitably slick fashion. It’s another slower number, but that doesn’t detract from the passionate cries of independence; “I’m not your plaything, I’m on fire”. The most interesting point of the track comes from the ever so slightly flanged vocals. It’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail, but it’s another curious example of Jones’s experimental studio approach to the whole album.
While it would be obvious to say that the album is short, it would be fair to argue that some of the songs seem to more or less occupy the same space musically. But even if you’re not particularly inclined towards jazz, you’ll find at least something to like about Begin Again. The album is undeniably smooth and unpretentious in its execution. Norah Jones explores dark subject matter at times but she presents her work in such a nonchalant manner that you could easily listen to the album no matter what mood you yourself are in.