Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Queen of the Nice

Jones contains her adventurous side (mostly).

***

NORAH JONES
Not Too Late
Blue Note

Greatness thrust upon her by Come Away With Me's Grammy sweep, Norah Jones maintained her modesty at all costs on 2004's Feels Like Home, with results less jazzy but duller -- even duller, some would say. On the mildly adventurous Not Too Late, she writes or co-writes every song -- thirteen in all, five more than on the first two albums combined. Although she may never hit upon a hook to equal Jesse Harris' on "Don't Know Why," she's quirkier lyrically than any of her helpmates. And she remains pop's nicest superstar nevertheless.

No matter the writer, Jones has always favored a verbal subtlety many would account bland: "When I saw the break of day/I wished that I could fly away." This effect is magnified by the thoughtful, sweetly rounded melancholy of the voice people love. So you have to concentrate to follow the twists of Not Too Late's opening "Wish I Could" -- Norah's friend misses (mourns?) an Iraq-bound guy she doesn't know Norah also had a thing with. And though the stark lyric "on Election Day" from "My Dear Country" will catch you short every time, you probably won't notice Jones calling an unnamed but unmistakable George W. Bush "the one we hate" just before.

These political moments contextualize Jones' calm, but lest her peace-at-all-costs legions fret, they're hardly the norm: "Thinking About You," prereleased as a download, returns to the soldier in "Wish I Could" only if you read a whole lot into "sail across the ocean waters." Nor does the music assert itself. The second-line touches on the possible Katrina song "Sinkin' Soon" and the cellos and bowed bass on the busker tribute "Broken" are notable because they're noticeable. In general, the organs and cellos and even horns Jones enlists blend into what must now be deemed an all-too-soothing formula. The fans who adore her take this formula as proof of her kindness, and they're probably right. The rest of us wonder who else she hates.

Rolling Stone, Feb. 8, 2007