Jazz Album of the Week: Norah Jones' first Christmas album strikes timeless emotional chords
I was 17 and the omnipresent song in America was "Don't Know Why," the hit single from Norah Jones' 2002 debut album, Come Away with Me. To this day, that record conjures senior year hangouts in friends’ basements and torturously long slow dances at the prom where I said “yes” to the wrong girl before I could summon the nerve to ask the right one.
On any given Friday night around that time, I might’ve found myself mindlessly driving, killing time crisscrossing the intersection of Route 611 and County Line Road in anticipation of an evening showing of the first installment of Lord of the Rings at the Regal Warrington Crossing. Invariably, the radio would be on, most likely tuned to what then was Y100 (100.3)—give me a break; I was 17.
And, invariably, you’d hear several songs over the course of an hour, all of which could’ve been either Norah Jones, Vanessa Carlton, Michelle Branch, or any combination thereof. “Don’t Know Why” and Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” always felt a cut above the rest. And these days, the former, a pop ballad lent gravitas by jazzy window dressing, feels decidedly less dated than the piano power-pop of the latter. Branch’s tunes—they were edgier and grittier, at least superficially. Still, all three put out uniformly catchy, largely innocuous, kind of anonymous pop hits very much of their place and time. Thus, even when you weren’t actually listening to Norah Jones, it felt like you were always listening to Norah Jones, even if, as it were, you weren’t really hearing her.
I hope Ms. Jones will forgive my teenage self for lazily engaging with her work and perceiving it as interchangeable with that of her dark-haired, dark-eyed, singer-songwriting peers of the early aughts. But I intend to make it up to her with a sober, thoughtful review of her latest, I Dream of Christmas.
Yes, it’s a holiday album. This is my penance.
To my surprise and delight—though holiday albums really can be trying—this is actually not penance at all. This is, with a couple exceptions, a pleasure. There’s a reason Jones has won nine Grammys and sold over 50 million records: 20 years hence, that breathy voice of hers is just as youthful, and by now there’s reason to believe she’s earned the wisdom her voice has always communicated.
The lead single, “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)” presents the pared-down pop minimalism that presents itself at least once per John Mayer and/or Coldplay album, but Jones’ vocals and lyrics save it from the doldrums of derivativeness. After a protracted period of solitude, the vocalist yearns for the flesh-on-flesh community of a “normal” Christmas. But her words are sung at a remove, aspirational instead of inevitable. You get the feeling that she’ll be able to perceive the yuletide gaiety but might very well be stuck singing about it from a numbed distance; from there, she sees it all but is limited to singing about all the ways it could make her feel—if only. This original from Jones is deeper than what first meets the eye, or ear.
That’s far from the only thoughtful Jones original here. For haunting and ethereal, check out “It’s only Christmas Once a Year,” where Jones and cellist Marika Hughes pair up for the type of chilling duet that would pair in perfectly with a holiday time installment of The Purge horror franchise. Spooky, intriguing, and ripe for a cinematic aesthetic aiming for foreboding and just enough cognitive dissonance to make the holidays interesting.
And for a countrified Christmas inflected with the soul of southern rock, try “You’re Not Alone,” the type of tune you might envision Levon Helm and the departed members of The Band playing in a heavenly church.
Indeed, Jones is especially soulful here—see another original, “Christmastime,” for further proof; no doubt pairing with producer Leon Michels (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Dr. John, The Black Keys) has helped bring that to the fore.
Michels leaves his mark on the Christmastime standards too, making a compelling case for the argument that the obligatory need not be (totally) tedious. The takes on Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” and Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” are two of the best examples of Michels’ sensibility being a force for good.
With Michels on percussion, the former whisks rumba and New Orleans-style blues together in a manner that honors Dr. John right along with Berry, while Russ Pahl’s steel guitar on the latter takes ol’ Frank Loesser to a place he probably didn’t spend many Chanukahs— Nashville. If only the great Tin Pan Alley composer and lyricist were still alive; it’d be a real hoot seeing him dance in spurs, a tucked-in flannel, and a statement belt-buckle to this one.
Elsewhere, while versions of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” aren’t quite my cup of egg nog—I prefer a heavier pour, something that stings the back of the throat a little as it goes down— Jones’ version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here,” the quintessential Christmas song for the thinking man, strikes the same deft balance of levity and heartache that’s made Jones consistently successful these past 20 years.
Though, remember, Norah can’t do all the work; finding the right one to dance with is on you.