So it was a big deal, this news of Danger Mouse working with Norah Jones. Danger Mouse. We’re talking about The Grey Album, and MF Doom…and Gnarls Barkley, and Broken Bells. Hip-hop culture and remixing, electronica and blurpy effects — these are things that were to be allowed to come into contact with that most pure of instruments — the voice of Norah Jones. It was stunning news that made me more than a little apprehensive. While I was quite sure that Norah’s voice didn’t need anything else, I was willing to wait for the result.
Well, it went far beyond stunning. Revealed in the songs of Little Broken Hearts was this mind-boggling idea:
And how did Norah deal with her breakup? By constructing a suite a songs as desolate as Beck’s Sea Change and as pointed and brutal as Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks and Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights. Yes, there are breakup albums…and then there’s Little Broken Hearts
The album begins with “Good Morning,” which at first seems like a somewhat typical lament about love gone wrong until a verse begins with “Good morning…why did you do it?” Wait, what? Did she just say that?
Indeed she did. And it’s here that Danger Mouse guides Norah’s emotions in some surprising sonic directions — “Say Goodbye” has a taunting hook that delivers the barb “You don’t have to tell the truth/Because if you do I’ll tell it too.” “Broken Hearts” lays down a sleazy, blues-noir vibe while the title track bubbles along with a dark and tense riff built on a layer of swampy guitar. And then there’s “Happy Pills,” an upbeat pop tune that frames a “I never want to see your face again” blow.
To my ears, Little Broken Hearts‘ most emotionally affecting songs are “She’s 22″ and the stunning “Miriam.” On the former, there’s the tension between stark bitterness and acceptance. Will his new 22 year old make him happy? — and just maybe she’d be OK with the idea that he’d found happiness.
But then there’s “Miriam,” in which our protagonist directly addresses her foe…and threatens her with death. Sung with a gently rising melodic line, the combination of the lightness of the music and the darkness of the theme is almost too much to take:
Miriam…when you were having fun…in my big pretty house…did you think twice?
I’ve been on that side of a dissolved relationship. I’ve felt that awful rain of emotions. There’s shock, anger, denial, fear, and even some love that just doesn’t want to let go. It’s hard to say what feels worse, the barely-contained rage or the sad wish that everything might return to normal.
In time, that hardly matters, as your idea of “normal” has been re-defined for you. Just ask Norah Jones.