Music - Stephanie Merritt on why Norah Jones's album is not just "dinner-party music"
The extraordinary success of her debut album, Come Away With Me, made Norah Jones the target of a certain kind of musical snobbery, as if the cachet of signing to John Coltrane's Blue Note label was cancelled out by the posters of her that appeared all over the windows of Woolworths. Jones's husky, jazz-flavoured songs were sniff- ily described by some as "dinner-party music", meaning that it was pleasant, melodic and didn't demand your full attention. But if sales of 18 million attested to the likeability of the album, the eight Grammys it picked up in 2002 were vindication of Jones's music as far more than the perfect background accompaniment to conversations about north London primary schools.
Now, still only 24, Jones has had to face difficult-second-album syndrome more than most, but it would be hard to imagine a more apt continuation than Feels Like Home. Produced, like her first album, by Arif Mardin, it is a fully collaborative effort featuring original songs by each member of Jones's touring band, including four that Jones has co-written with her partner, the bass player Lee Alexander.
Although "jazzy" is the easiest adjective to pin on Jones's music, Feels Like Home has taken a bold turn towards Nashville. Dolly Parton makes a guest appearance on the jauntiest and most explicitly country of the songs, "Creepin' In", and there is an achingly sweet cover of "Be Here to Love Me" by the late blues and country poet Townes Van Zandt. In proper country ballad tradition, it's an album full of lost love, broken hearts, absent daddies and wistful yearning.
This is largely down to the beauty of Jones's distinctive voice. She could sing "Anarchy in the UK" and have you weeping with nostalgia into your Jack Daniel's (in a recent interview, she said that she hankers to join a rock'n'roll band, so the day may yet come). When she sings "Baby Teresa, she's got your eyes, I see you every day/When she asks about her daddy, I never know what to say", it has the same effect as watching a Richard Curtis film: even though you can see exactly how your emotional response is being manipulated, it still works. (Although this song, "Humble Me", is one of the few not co-authored by Jones, it is tempting to read its lyrics as an allusion to her relationship with her father, Ravi Shankar, who was absent for much of her life.)
Smoky, velvety, smooth, mellow, sweet, honeyed - Jones's voice has been des-cribed as all those things, but it's not especially varied; she lacks the rich textures of her idol Billie Holiday. What sounds sublime on "I Don't Know Why", the most frequently played song from her first album, or on the gorgeously plaintive "What Am I To You?" on the second, doesn't quite work on a cover of Tom Waits's "The Long Way Home" - though this may not bother those who don't know the original.
Musically, Jones is not breaking new ground here any more than she was on Come Away With Me. So why has her particular kind of soulful, acoustic, lounge-bar music proved so popular? Perhaps it's simply a backlash against the ubiquity of meaningless bratty pop.
Jones sings as if she means it, and her success appears to have opened the way for other talented young singers and musicians. The Brit Awards nominees Jamie Cullum and Amy Winehouse, as well as Katie Melua, whose debut album is currently at the top of the charts, are indebted to Jones. Feels Like Home may not demand your undivided attention, but it certainly repays it.
Norah Jones's Feels Like Home is released by Parlophone/Blue Note
Stephanie Merritt is deputy literary editor of the Observer