Listen to this track by documented Grammy-magnet and Texan country-jazz-indie-whatever singer-songwriter Norah Jones. It’s “Sinkin’ Soon”, a Tom Waitsean political parable as taken from 2007’s Not Too Late, her third album.
This song was released as a second single from that album, which overall was something of a departure from the meticulously wrought jazz and country hybrid she’d perfected on her first two albums, both of which sold a boatload, and made her a household name. For one thing, this time Norah Jones herself along with bassist and songwriter Lee Harris helmed the controls in place of legendary Arif Mardin who had produced those first two albums, making it looser and with more unfastened edges.
The result was still a debut at number one on Billboard’s top 200, three for three where top spot showings were concerned for Norah Jones. Another big change was an emphasis on original songs. Instead of songs sourced from various external sources to fill out the running time, Jones had a hand in writing all of them, either alone, or with band members. She worked many of these out on guitar rather than from her expected place at the piano.
Lee Harris also co-wrote this one with Jones, a story about an ill-fated journey by sea that reflected a certain political point of view during a time when the destiny of a nation seemed to be very much in doubt.
Considering how many records she was selling, Norah Jones’ decision to produce, record, and write a whole record with a variety of dark thematic undercurrents was a pretty ballsy move, although the sessions were purportedly very casual. Yet, they were also without her label’s knowledge. To me, this loose feel makes Not Too Late her best work of the earliest period of her recording career with Lee Harris as her main collaborator. And this song is perhaps the most striking departure to date at that point, a song that evokes a sort of smoky, Weimar cabaret atmosphere, full of bluesy piano and raunchy muted trombone interjections. It’s all delivered vocally in a langourous, slightly inebriated cadence. It’s like she wrestled Tom Waits’ muse to the ground, and claimed this one for herself.
To boot, this is a political song from Jones and aided by Harris, a treatise on the state of the union at the time, when fellow Texan George W. Bush sat in the oval office with a vacant look on his face while deficits ballooned, expensive and illegal wars raged abroad, and civil liberties were targeted domestically in the name of national security. The 2000s seemed to be entering darker and darker waters, with the relative peace and stability of the previous decade having long since faded; now a “boat made of sticks and hay that’s drifted from the shore, with a captain who’s too proud to say he’s dropped the oar.”
Despite the potentially polarizing theme of this song, and another on the album (“My Dear Country”), her commercial trajectory seemed unaffected. But, things had changed as far as making albums went, with these songs being more open ended, and with fewer smooth edges for which her detractors tend to criticize her. She also showed that an artist could still create accessible music fit for the mainstream while still talking about important issues, including commenting on the state of the way the country was being run, or not being run as the case may be.
Jones went on to push the boat out further, so to speak, where her artistic direction was concerned. She’s worked with a wide range of artists on various projects, including contributions to songs by Outkast, Foo Fighters, Ryan Adams, and Willie Nelson. She’d duet with Ray Charles, and with Tony Bennett. Eventually, she would work with Danger Mouse on her 2012 album Little Broken Hearts. She even cut a record with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (Forverly), on which its revealed that their voices are amazingly compatible.
There had always been more to Norah Jones beyond a soundtrack in the coffee shop. What’s revealed here is a connected understanding of all kinds of musical streams, and with a social conscience underneath them in her own material to make her execution of it to be substantially realized. In the end, Norah Jones is a music fan as well as a singer and musician, as well as an artist very much aware of her surroundings in the world outside of Grammy wins and Starbucks compilations.
You can find out more about her more recent movements at norahjones.com.