There are changes in the modus operandi for Norah Jones’ third album, her first not produced by Arif Mardin (recently deceased), and the only one that includes no covers. Neither of these aspects heralds a change of great significance, though. Like her previous releases, Not Too Late operates from an intimate stance. In fact, it practically screams intimacy, as if sonic clarity and breathy dynamics have become obligatory in her formula.
There is some wiggle room here, as with the dolorous ensemble, reminiscent of Randy Newman’s “Lonely At The Top”, on the similarly cheerful “Sinkin’ Soon”. Generally, though, acoustic textures and bone-dry vocals draw the focus to the tune, as illuminations might guide a Renaissance reader’s eyes toward Scripture.
While Jones continues to demonstrate that she knows how to write and sing more than competently, questions remain about how much scrutiny her work can bear over time. From her phenomenal debut up until now, she has drawn almost entirely from the Tapestry aesthetic, with the same emphasis on piano, whispery guitar, acoustic bass, and textures so spare they sound the way Shaker decor looks.
What’s missing is the craftsmanship that this approach, with its unavoidable Carole King derivation, seems to promise. Each detail of King’s arrangements serves material that has proven its ability to stand on its own, in multiple settings. With Jones, the arrangements — the brisk but gentle guitar arpeggio on “Not My Friend”, the repetitive Wurlitzer riff on “Thinking About You”, the groaning glissandi of the basses on “Broken” — are what stick in memory, where echoes of melody and lyric should linger. There’s nothing wrong with taste, unless it becomes too easily confused with elements of greater value.