Pick Me Up Off The Floor (Blue Note/Universal)
The easiest way to divert people still asking if you make jazz or if you make “Blue Note type” music is to give them music that isn’t really quantifiable - in those terms or any others. The best way to change the conversation is to make music that feels like yours and let them worry about how to categorise it.
Intentionally or not, that’s what Norah Jones has done for just about all her career: pushing the boat out each time without ever feeling like she’s gone over the horizon (she’s still got that voice; she’s still got tunes; she’s still got the players – so accessibility has always been possible) but never feeling like she’s settled into a safe harbour (jazz, country, electronica, harmony pop, light soul, even art music – they’ve all turned up at some point).
Pick Me Up Off The Floor is a record which veers in and outside the shipping lanes in such a deceptive way that you have to stop and break it down to really notice that straight line moves have in fact been rare.
It opens with How I Weep which starts with a gently persuasive voice that immediately feels comfortably familiar, but over a simple, repetitive bottom hand piano rhythm that stays unchanged for pretty much all of the four and a half minutes and becomes something of a hypnotic minimalist line, or a nagging, probing undercurrent – depending on your taste or patience.
The recurring appearance of strings work as violin punctuation points at first (like stabbing lines in a ‘50s filmscore), then as a cello-based mood thickener - though neither dominate – and in the second half of the song the right hand on the piano prods firmly at notes like questions being thrown.
You are served cream by one side, something sharper, more tart by the other, so that you never settle even though you wouldn’t say you’re unsettled exactly either. And that’s amplified by the lyrics which never specifies the loss or the hurt for which she weeps, but as the song opens out, past the surface performance of “And I march and I dance/And I sing and I laugh”, to the point where she says she weeps “for a loss that’s so deep/That it hardens and turns into stone”, you sense an internal disquiet in her that slowly becomes part of your own experience. Even then that doesn’t “whack me straight into my stomach at night” but it does begin to tie a knot in that stomach.
It’s a fascinatingly balanced song, a proper opener in that it gives you the guidelines for the album as both invitation and warning, but seductively unclear as to which will take you first, because there are layers, or maybe more appropriately, counter-arguments, everywhere.
That might be the sweep of a soul organ and the Floydian guitar chords in Flame Twin, and the understated Chicago gospel peeking into country rock of I’m Alive (co-written with Jeff Tweedy), or the blend of Jones declaring “this life as we know it, is over” in a manner that is almost businesslike, with humming, then rising, then cooing backing vocals which feel like a Laura Nyro arrangement, in This Life.
It’s there in the low-level menace of the lower registers and the prickly pleading of the violin in Were You Watching (“Were you watching when the flowers bloomed in the springtime? … Were you watching as we slowly turned into strangers?”), and in the way Carole King and Elvis Costello coexist in the sting and smoothness, the side-eye and caress of Hurts To Be Alone.
And it’s most definitely there in the dark hued sensuality, the imminent threat – of pleasure or hurt or both – in Say No More which segues from Chick Corea to Herbie Hancock to the edge of Otis Spann.
Even the most conventional track here, the quiet croon of Heartbroken, Day After, where Jones hints at some Billie Holiday phrasing and the bass leans towards a jazz corner, there’s some pedal steel to bend the line a tad and the lyrics find her – even as the voice is unwavering – spiralling out of control.
Without ever being explicit, neither naming names nor identifying a struggle, Pick Me Up Off The Floor feels like a record made in the eddy of these past few years of turbulence - political, financial, medical, social, intellectual, emotional. There are signs of unease and even anger, flashes of optimism and tempered joy too. However, it’s not a record made unsteady by the current, for Jones is comfortable here, and so will we be, even if we’re not able to say which way the swell will rise or how deep the next dip is.