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Begin Again (EMI)

A bunch of singles made over the past year or so, that may have snuck onto radios but nobody seemed too fussed if it happened. A collection of songs with “mixed parentage” in terms of musicians involved and producers tapped. A release that may be called an album but whose connecting points are probably as much in the differences as the similarities.

Simultaneously very old school (before the album became music’s defining statement, “random” singles were the norm and collections were mostly to mop up bonus sales), and very modern (the mixed bag of producers; the lack of interest in moribund radio; the leaning towards a collection of songs rather than a unified thought), Begin Again is not like the other musical kids in the playground.

But it is in its own way, very Norah Jones.

The smartest move Jones consistently makes among a raft of smart moves that have defined her “second” career – the one after her first two massive selling, easy on the ears pop jazz albums – is to couch her rebellions in cloaks of gentility, and colour her adventures with multiple hues.

While 2009’s The Fall brought gothic country and southern soul to the party, her album with Billie Armstrong of Green Day, Foreverly, was an extremely unlikely pairing on paper but an Everly Brothers-sweet result that still felt touched by resistance to safety. Little Broken Hearts, which she made with Danger Mouse in 2012, played with tempo and tone, ‘60s suave and 21st century despair, and Day Breaks re-centred her work in jazz, both its rhythms and its feels, in 2016.

If Begin Again seems at first not quite as adventurous as some of her recent albums, it’s because it is sneaking through deviations and experiments alongside a song as unimpeachably attractive and familiar as the intimate, sloping country rock. Wintertime.

A Song With No Name is as open and desert-airy as anything from Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas, soundtrack but also as ambiguous, with her vocals caught between lost and searching in a way that holds you at a slight distance because of its powerful sense of isolation. But then My Heart Is Full has the tenor of a gospel protest inside a moody art rock shape, with unsettling percussion and a kind of PJ Harvey creeping imposition as counterpoint to her downturned but mellifluous vocals.

Just A Little Bit, with its mix of late-night jazz and slow turning R&B, stays low profile for its full five minutes but its insinuations are quite sly, the sensuality rising until it burns. The title track, by contrast, is rhythmically springy, Jones’ voice matching her piano in a tricky balancing between demanding change and wanting out. It feels like Stevie Nicks but plays as jazz-on-the-verge-of-soul.

That soul is on full display in It Was You, where Jones sings with an ache that isn’t just desire but comes with growing knowledge of other parties, while amusingly, Uh Oh, (a patterned rhythm that approaches trip hop with backing vocals suggesting ‘90s R&B) feels like plenty of knowledge tempered by the temptation to think less and do more.

This set of songs may or may not be an album, but it is certainly clever, satisfying work.

(A shorter version of this review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum on April 13.)

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