But unlike the mid-90s explosion of female singer/songwriters, Jones’ armful of awards didn’t really spawn a swarm of copycat artists hoping to catch a new wave. Jones released a few more records, but as I write this with the Grammies just hours away, we find Justin Timberlake and Pussycat Dolls jockeying for the big wins, and fewer artists than you can count on one hand (one that might have a few fingers missing, even) that may have really made some music last year.
Just to put things in perspective, consider that at the 1987 awards, artists like Paul Simon, Bruce Hornsby, Peter Gabriel and Eric Johnson either won or gained a nomination, and enjoyed plenty of radio play. Flash-forward to the 2007 candidates, and well, it’s just a little sad to see just how far popular tastes have fallen. And that’s not mere “critical snobbery” talking, just the facts: Graceland? Hooray! Futuresex/Lovesounds? C’mon- you’re kidding, right?
Not Too Late builds upon the wispy, gently blue sound Jones has made a trademark, but borrows more from the musical side roads she’s traveled over the last few years. A little of the twang from the Little Willies project appears in the ringing lap steel during “Wake Me Up” and “Little Room,” some chamber pop elements float beneath the not-so-subtle political lyrics of “My Dear Country,” calling to mind Jon Brion’s sonic stamp.
Jones also plays more guitar here, even eschewing the piano altogether on several cuts. She’s ably backed by many of the usual suspects throughout, including Jesse Harris, Adam Levy and Richard Julian. M. Ward adds some vocals to the (here’s that word again) subtle New Orleans vibe on “Sinking Soon,” which seems to waver between indirect and quite direct criticism of the nation’s super fumble during Hurricane Katrina with Bush painted as a “captain that’s too proud to say that he dropped the oar.” That’s downright vicious for Jones.
Though the music and the overall tone of the album is exactly what we’ve come to expect, the lyrics indicate that everything may not quite be as okay as it was in ’03. Whereas she had a “heart drenched in wine” then, she’s now spinning the tale of a woman struggling with how to console a friend whose man has gone off to war — a man that was a former flame of the storyteller.
Fading stardom, betrayal and the occasional loneliness of love make several thematic appearances here, so even if all the corners are soft and rounded at first listen, the messages tend to be a little prickly when you dig in. Those expecting pounding keys and screaming catharsis will be sorely disappointed, but anyone familiar with her previous work will surely notice the shadowy cobwebs in the corners of the rooms Jones now invites us to peruse.
“Rosie’s Lullaby” lilts along, never hurried, much like the character of Rosie herself—wandering among the waves, pondering whether to give in and join them. This is one of the more robust and familiar feeling arrangements on Not Too Late, with the gentle throb of a Wurlitzer organ and echoed guitars never crowding, rather cushioning Jones’ romantic (though somber) storytelling and lush harmonies. Closing with the sparse title track, she reminds us that it’s “not too late for love....” It’s a sentiment that can either truly comfort or emptily placate in the face of fading hope, and it seems that Norah Jones is leaving it up to us to decide which one it should mean.
Not Too Late doesn’t pound its fist and demand your attention. Neither is it a drastic change in direction or style for the artist. But it does portray one that’s willing to share a little more of herself (happy and sad) than before, along with a few displays of political consciousness that manage to come off more genuine than merely timely. Like a pleasant rainy day or an evening alone that isn’t necessarily “lonely,” Not Too Late remains romantic in spite of itself, and closer in both spirit and depth to that first album that made Jones one of the few “pop stars” actually deserving of such a title. Excellent.