Not Too Late
was told that I could listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven.”
Don’t underestimate the role that office culture has played in Norah Jones’ tremendous success. A few years ago I worked with a girl who played Come Away with Me every fucking day on her computer for months, and now here I am eagerly burning Not Too Late onto a CD-R so I can have something pleasantly unobtrusive to listen to while I’m in my own cubicle.
I’ve actually been thinking a lot lately about how working in offices for almost five years may have significantly altered my listening tastes and preferences. Would I be quite so fond of pop (especially girl-pop, which Ian Cohen thinks I can’t possibly enjoy with sincerity as a heterosexual man) and chart country were it not for the fact that I spend 40 hours a week bound to certain unspoken rules of office decorum, which quite clearly (and no doubt reasonably) dictate that shit like AC/DC, Queens of the Stone Age, and basically all hip-hop is completely out of the question? (And for what it’s worth, I’ve endured snarky comments and crinkled noses for playing the likes of Radiohead, Rufus Wainwright, and Miles Davis—In a Silent Way!—in the past).
Of course, people have needed music to accompany dish-washing and laundry-folding for ages, but these days it’s corporate clockwatching that’s consuming so many of our hours and demanding we concoct some kind of diverting or complementary stimulus. Hence blogging, AIM chats, email chains, cat posters, and Norah Jones. The administrative assistants and data entry specialists of the world could only listen to old Cat Stevens CDs and the oldies station for so long. Someone had to fill the void.
When you consider Ms. Jones, one thing that jumps out immediately is indeed how rare it is for anyone to achieve such massive stardom for sounding so doggedly small. Even “lite FM” is routinely populated by larger-than-life voices and figures like Celine Dion, Elton John, and Whitney Houston. Jones’ appeal doesn’t make itself so readily apparent. Basically, she’s pretty, a nice pianist, and possesses a huskily evocative but far from attention-grabbing voice.
In fact, Norah’s so unprepossessing she actually managed the incredible feat of not even having to answer her success and acknowledge her own ego. No matter how badly bands like Pearl Jam and Radiohead want to pretend that fame’s a distasteful afterthought, they end up still feeling forced to grapple with its pressures and demands in their music. Meanwhile, Jones blithely acts like she’s still completely anonymous, making albums that are quiet little carbon copies of each other and scarcely seem cognizant of the fact that a good chunk of the record industry is riding on how well they sell.
It’s a remarkable trick, and Norah’s a fucking genius for pulling it off, realizing that her fans, regardless of how active or passive they may be in their patronage, would rather not have their workday or dinnertime musical accompaniment weighed down by myopic navel-gazing or tedious meditations on fame. Nah, they’ll stick with stuff like the Nick Drake-ish “Sun Doesn’t Like You,” with its chorus that just slowly bursts upon you, like walking down the street and turning a corner into blinding sunlight. Or the twangy, ruminative “Broken,” its strings gently tugging against each other.
If you’ve been here before, you’ll notice things haven’t much changed. In fact, the only time Norah really stumbles is when she forgets there’s nothing outside of Pleasantville, awkwardly riding a soul-styled groove on “Thinkin’ About You” (she’s always better off engaging country and jazz), or taking an admirable but rhetorically shaky political stance on “My Dear Country” (now, if I knew for sure this was a “fuck you” response to Nellie McKay, I’d love it).
While the music remains modest, there are a few moments of gratifying lyrical incision and indecision befitting this being Jones’ first album bereft of covers. Note the exquisite tension between public wars and private domestic dramas in the subtly insinuating opener “Wish I Could,” as well as the eerie open-endedness of the pedal-steel-kissed “Rosie’s Lullaby” (is it about suicide?).
Still, those are the exceptions that prove the rule of Norah Jones’ small scope and quiet rewards. “Be My Somebody” treats the little intimacies of relationships, relishing the names of everyday objects like blankets and rags, and seems tailor-made for a duet with the likes of Ryan Adams, while “Little Room” features some endearingly inept whistling and could very well be as metaphoric as the White Stripes song of the same name.
Really, it’s not just superfluously palatable sound that Norah’s providing to desk jockeys and house cleaners. Hers is the kind of background music to life that seems to lend a gentle poignancy to everything it surrounds, and performs its softly melodic function with refreshingly few demands of pretense or disruption. After all, everything can’t be the Stones or Sonic Youth or A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Those 40 hours a week don’t work themselves.