Norah Jones : Visions

Norah Jones Visions review

Visions is Norah Jones’ first non-Christmas record in nearly four years. Co-produced by multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels of El Michels Affair, it moves about the new-twang country multiverse, retro-soul, and R&B boulevards like a Swiss Army knife that utilizes all of her superpowers: It’s Jones’ big little indie record without the fanfare and industry one-sheet. Always a bankable artist, Jones has sold over 50 million albums and earned nine Grammys in 20 years in the industry. And this turn arrives right on time.

Upon my telling a fellow writer about Jones’ new album, he retorted, “Well, at least you keep an open mind.” Heh, that’s shade. Listen, I never thought Jones’ music was bad. Nope. She’s on Blue Note. And even if I felt that way, I’d never say it. Out of respect to Bobbi Humphrey, Donald Byrd, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard—you get my gist. Predictable? Mmm, shrug emoji-yeah. That’s the territory. Not offensively so, but after a while, that first rush of albums somehow became so Starbucks synonymous. But sheesh, I’m not trying to talk smack about Jones. My mom digs her. And that’s the point.

“The reason I called the album Visions is because a lot of the ideas came in the middle of the night or in that moment right before sleep,” Jones told the press in January. And that’s what’s so distinct with this project. It’s not measured, or that much predictable—at least for a Norah Jones record.

You can hear the randomness that was built up from experimenting in the studio until something worked. Michels has capitalized on this simple acoustic setup, and Jones’ self-accompaniment is impressive with its low-key eclecticism. Starting with the first track “All This Time,” it carries a regal quality underneath the relaxed rhythm and skillful piano playing. Even the way she ends the statement by repeating “I’ll make it easy” leaves you wanting to return to what was before, even if you don’t know what it was.

In this first half of the record, Jones and Michels, doing their kick-drum soul-twang, gain momentum on the country roller “Staring At The Wall,” a real hitch-in-your-giddy-up roller where Nora philosophizes stanza by stanza, while Michaels keeps it in a dusty guitar atmospherics patina for her to coo along to. The two artists have chemistry. Short-hand musician language is in operation. There’s easy comfort rolling around this collaborative effort. He played trumpet on one of her early albums and they stayed connected, and finally, he asked her if they could do a project together. Of course, it was during COVID and lockdown when they got together in the studio and just started jamming out ideas.

For the beat heads (ahem) who are hopefully still reading this, remember Return To The 37th Chamber by El Michels Affair? Welp, your assumptions are correct. The drum hits, the snares, and the backbeats are most definitely hip-hop quality, but Jones and Michaels are in expanded vistas, so they do that wondrous thing where they traverse through rhythmic bluegrass, Stax-type soul, fuzzy rock spots, and Jones gets into her writing bag, conjuring stretches and phrases that cut to the chase.

I don’t want to talk about it/I Just wanna dance” is how “I Just Wanna Dance” kicks off with those magical color keys/Fender Rhodes understating the repeated lyrics, giving that oomph cause, as she says, she’s not trying to talk about it. That’s what the lady said right? And those Daptone horn lines blow that complimentary non-talking energy. It’s a mason jar full of Peach Tree Tea type of sweet.

Next up, in “I’m Awake,” Jones is calling and responding to her lines. Her self-accompanied stretches with stout piano work project the melody while these cathartic slide guitar waves, feeling more ambient than Americana, just glide about. Is this Norah Jones uncut, raw? Yeah, but it’s flowy, unguarded in its soulful, warm, and unrushed presentation.

She’s got jet streams, Saturn’s rings, and unforeseen worlds. Planets of moods wrapped up in those repeating lyrics, “Now I’m finally awake” that keep coming back around until they smolder out. Norah knows she has heavyweight components of Sharon Jones’ band working with her and takes the reserved approach method of storytelling, very non-Sharon Jones-y, allowing those massive or plink-and-pluck arrangements to roll over those acute enunciations she makes.

I know her previous album from 2020, Pick Me Up Off the Floor, made with Jeff Tweedy and a whole grip of folks, is the opposite of this. I believe Visions is intentionally subtle, porch-sipping music, with that is-what-it-is sentiment that doesn’t always explain everything. Leaving you and your ears to do the work with these livid, hand-sewn among friends arrangements, and claggy lyrics. Michels, coming off producing the last Black Thought record, turns Jones’ light on inside.

Label: Blue Note

Year: 2024

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