Pop Music Review: Norah Jones

It’s hard to feel sorry for Norah Jones: At 31, she’s already sold more records than most artists will over a lifetime, and despite her soccer-mom appeal, she’s retained a kind of cool-musician cachet, collaborating in recent years with Bright Eyes, Beck and the Beastie Boys. In an unsteady music industry, hers is a success story with both commercial and creative dimensions.

Still, on Friday night at the Orpheum Theatre, where Jones played a sold-out date on her current U.S. tour, your heart went out to the singer a little bit when her promise to “go back in time” to her early work earned a more enthusiastic reaction than did the new songs that preceded it.

Jones opened the show with a long stretch of material from last year’s “The Fall” — moody, groove-based tunes such as “Chasing Pirates” and “Even Though,” in which she projected a soulfulness and a devotion to rhythm largely absent from her first three albums. The audience at the Orpheum, though, seemed respectfully uninterested; these were fans waiting for “Don’t Know Why,” the mellow 2002 smash that turned Jones into an instant brunch-jazz brand.

And who could blame them? Written by Jones’ frequent partner Jesse Harris, “Don’t Know Why” is a perfectly realized pop song, as sure of its aesthetic character as its narrator is unsure of the reason she failed to meet her lover. If most acts go their entire careers without approaching Jones’ sales figures, it might be because they also go their entire careers without her sense of self.

In contrast, “The Fall” reflects an unexpected identity crisis; Jones made the disc following a breakup with her longtime boyfriend and bassist, Lee Alexander, and the songs ponder loss and reinvention over dreamily diffuse arrangements smeared with organ and electric guitar. Backed by a new band that included two L.A.-based session pros — guitarist Smokey Hormel and drummer Joey Waronker — Jones was more interested Friday in exploring that fresh indecision than she was in asserting her old self-assurance.

The results, particularly during that initial seven-song sequence, presented a convincingly lifelike portrait of Jones the young person, as opposed to Jones the precocious showbiz veteran. In “I Wouldn’t Need You” and “Light as a Feather” (the latter cowritten with Ryan Adams), you got a sense of what it might be like to sit with Jones over beers in a bar, talking about guys and their inability to stop making mistakes.

Hormel and Waronker helped give older songs such as “Sunrise” and “Broken” some of the new album’s appealing interiority. But for “Don’t Know Why,” which came late in her 90-minute set, Jones limited her accompaniment to piano and harmony vocals from bassist Gus Seyffert and multi-instrumentalist Sasha Dobson. Unwilling to withhold what her audience had shown up to hear, Jones appeared determined at least to peel back its slick certitude.

She’d time-travel, sure, but she wouldn’t make a big deal out of it.