Even our adult contemporary overlords are getting into the mini-album.
Even our adult contemporary overlords are getting into the mini-album. The underground has had a glut of pseudo EPs/albums this decade, all clocking in at under 30 minutes and flooding the airwaves. Whether quick toss-offs between proper albums or gambits to get out of a contract (looking at you Frank Ocean), they’re often low stakes releases with an improvisational feel. At their best, they might become the zenith of a discography, like Thundercat’s sorrowful funk ride The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam. But the small perimeters can end up confining possibilities. And so Norah Jones’ Begin Again finds itself trapped and wishing for a wider expanse.
Since Jones dominated the charts with her diamond selling Come Away with Me her smoky jazz-folk has damn near been trademarked. That’s down to her subdued and slinky sensibilities on the keys and her own hushed, southern-stained voice. Though her side work (with everyone from Q-Tip to Seth MacFarlane) has been delightfully surreal, her primary catalogue has stuck to her strengths even as returns diminished. 2012 saw her last foray into experimentation with the frazzled, vulnerable pop of Little Broken Hearts, but 2016’s Day Breaks and now this shorter work finds Jones returning to her comfort zone. Though she might claim the opposite. Begin Again’s diminutive size comes from Jones’ desire to leave much of the album ephemeral. All seven songs were based on voice memos and her goal was to see how they would expand in the studio in under three days.
With producer Doveman at the helm and Jeff Tweedy working his warm magic in the background, the results sound breezy; but often to a fault. With the bite-sized run time and these songs’ tendencies to lounge at low tempos, the whole thing feels like a pleasant but unremarkable dream. “Song With No Name,” despite some creepy mentions of knives, is so reverbed out that the song descends into a lukewarm haze. Forget the melatonin, some of Begin Again is an industrial grade sleep aid. Elsewhere it’s obvious that Jones has unearthed some wondrous stuff but didn’t let it grow. The jittering shuffle of the title track has biblical motifs and political undertones, Jones’ piano growling with dark power. But there’s a sense she’s holding back, that the song hasn’t reached its final form, with the climaxes feeling a smidge underwhelming. Ditto on “It Was You” which has Jones putting some Motown “oohs” before her pillowy keys flow forth. The horn section accompanying her is smooth as butter, but there’s a sluggish stupor sleeping in the verses. With a bit of editing it could have reached the peaks of Come Away With Me.
As with most things Jones touches, it’s hard to get mad or even annoyed at her choices. She’s too canny, making relaxing, pleasing music without a second thought. But when that sort of pre-fab pleasantness is second nature the possibilities beyond start to tarnish Begin Again.