Revolution is loud: Combustible mezzo-soprano feminist paeans; discontent teenage anthems mumbled over fuzzed-up power chords; unfiltered news bulletins broadcast from the hoods of Los Angeles; a conceptual collision between rock, pop, and high art facilitated by sitar accompaniments. When we think about music that changed its era and the industry writ large, the records that stick out most are the ones with the most volume, the releases that spoke in the greatest roar or stirred the tallest cultural tidal waves in their day.
But revolution is also quiet. Revolution is the sound of a young woman, Texas-raised and born in the embrace of musical accomplishment, gently inviting listeners to extend their hand, hit the open road, climb mountains, wade through fields, and lounge on beaches. It’s the sound of relaxed jazz fusion, arriving at exactly the right time for an audience in desperate need of restored calm. It’s Norah Jones. It’s Come Away with Me.
It has been 20 years, which is enough time to survey the record’s impact—invisible but no less monumental—since its release on Blue Note on February 26, 2002, seemingly an anomaly in both the label’s typical milieu as well as the zeitgeist. Come Away with Me’s low-key status didn’t hold it back from success. In fact, it may ultimately have facilitated the record’s Grammy victories and certified Diamond status.
Jones is the child of late sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and concert promoter Sue Jones. Being born in Manhattan, she’s a child of New York, too, despite relocating to the Lone Star State at 7 years old. Working from the same script as most musical aspirants, Jones got a job in hospitality after graduating college and spent her evenings playing NYC clubs.
Unlike most musical aspirants, she had the great fortune of being discovered when, one night, a Blue Note representative happened to hear her sing. Come Away With Me quickly came together after that chance encounter. The label teamed her with a deep bench of veteran jazz musicians led by an expert producer, Arif Mardin, who collaborated with names in the range of Aretha Franklin and Queen.
Listening to Come Away with Me today, two things spring to mind. The first is the miracle of Jones’ prominence—she is the star of her record, despite being a newcomer surrounded by established talent, recording music for a label known predominantly for a boisterous jazz subgenre popularized by musicians like Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Thelonius Monk.
Rationally, Jones should barely be a blip on the radar. Realistically, Jones was, still is, so much her own musician—a student of jazz, with a major in jazz piano, but a product of Texan folk and country. In retrospect, it was impossible for Come Away with Me to have been anything other than a pure expression of her identity as an artist.
The second thing that becomes clear when relistening in 2022 is the oasis of peace the album provided for Americans still reeling from the chaos and horror we bore witness to just six months prior on 9/11. It’s fascinating to consider what people looked for from their pop culture intake after hijacked planes reduced the World Trade Center to rubble. It’s arguable that, for instance, the Lord of the Rings films benefitted from a desire to see clear-cut delineations of good and evil expressed on screen.
It’s less arguable that the Saw and Hostel films, responsible for sparking what journalists dismissively referred to as “torture porn,” succeeded because they explicitly evoked images of post-9/11 inhumanity. But before either of these movies opened in theaters, audiences sought out hope in The Fellowship of the Ring and respite in Come Away with Me.
The title track entreaties Jones’ target audience, a crush, a lover, to escape from life in civilized society; “Come away where they can’t tempt us / With their lies,” she breathes in the third verse, lies being a popular commodity in post-9/11 America. What she craves is a renewed sense of safety, something that can’t yet be found in urban spaces, because it’s in these urban spaces that the trauma took place.
“They” can’t tempt Jones or her paramour, but Jones can tempt us, her audience, with the promise of a peaceful idyll at a moment when it is sorely needed. Comparatively, “Don’t Know Why,” the first single off of the record, lacks as much forward drive, but retains the same tranquil sensation as “Come Away with Me.” Maybe there’s power in that three-word phrase for a culture with no answers to looming questions about what the world looks like after a televised act of wanton destruction.
Jones, covering Jesse Harris’ 1999 track of the same name, comes across with a stronger conviction on “Don’t Know Why” than she does on “Come Away with Me.” There’s a personal component to both; somehow, Jones’ singing is more liberated on the former than the latter, which may explain why it’s the song that scored her three of her five Grammys at the 2003 awards ceremony. Again, what’s most memorable about “Don’t Know Why” isn’t the band backing her: It’s her, a remarkable feat given that the musicianship on the track is stellar, stripped-down to the point where every note rings with perfection found only in simplicity.
“Don’t Know Why” and “Come Away with Me” relate aurally in ways that the rest of the album doesn’t, because Jones structures the rest of the album around variations of style. Two other covers, Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and Billie Holiday’s “I’ve Got to See You Again,” further signal her broad tastes and influences. “Turn Me On” validates her as a singer capable of belting out pain, longing, and frustration from the most primal parts of her spirit.
“Lonestar” shows off her barroom swagger, and for some may be more recognizable as Come Away with Me’s signature track than “Don’t Know Why,” despite their respective popularity. Taken in pieces, Come Away with Me is humble. Taken as a whole, the record is eclectic and ahead of its time, and this is why, so many long years after its reception, it has proven essential to pop music’s evolution in the decades since.
Contemporary soul-pop is defined by artists both big (Amy Winehouse, Adele) and small (Duffy, Erin Costelo, Tash Sultana). However great their profiles, Jones and Come Away with Me are responsible, in part, for just the possibility of their successes. Play any one of these musicians next to Jones and you may detect only scant sonic similarities, yet the effect Jones’ career had on theirs, whether in terms of her commercial performance or critical appreciation, remains tangible.
To not only compete against Britney Spears, Eminem, Pink, The Dixie Chicks, and Bruce Springsteen, but to win, necessarily means catching the music industry’s ear, because the music industry, like all industries, is motivated by trophies and moving units. This is a mechanical way to frame Jones’ accomplishments. It’s also accurate. When a performer of a certain genre does well, talent scouts sniff out the next big thing in that genre. So it goes.
But the “how” and “why” of Jones and Come Away with Me matter much less than one simple observation: The album endures because it is great, not because it sold millions of copies or gave Jones a fistful of statues. Contextualized with its laurels and its bestseller status, Come Away with Me’s unassuming quality as art feels nearly like a punchline. It doesn’t take much to change an industry—just hushed tones, contemplative lyrics, and an unadulterated love of music encompassing jazz and everything beyond.