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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Don't Know Why" and the calmer, number side of heartbreak

In a way, Norah Jones presents an alternative perspective on lost love compared to yesterday's post.

Today's Senior Year Soundtrack addition is probably the song from within my lifetime that has been with me the longest.

My parents had — and still have — a plethora of LPs and CDs, but nearly all of them were from between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. Then, after a gap of a decade and a half in their collection, was Come Away with Me, the 2002 debut offering from Norah Jones.

I can completely understand why my parents were drawn to the album. It stood apart from the popular records of its time in its sophisticated, jazz-leaning acoustic pop, and it just made sense that my parents liked it based on the era and music with which they grew up. While neither were the biggest fans of jazz, it was a sound they definitely enjoyed, and they liked hearing the ways jazz crossed over into mainstream popular music. Come Away with Me is exactly that sort of crossover; throughout its fourteen tracks, Jones combines jazz with pop, folk, and country. The opening track and lead single off the album, "Don't Know Why," is a shining combination of light jazz and light acoustic pop. Its status as the album's first song meant I heard it the most when my parents popped the CD into our player or their car. ...Not that I minded, considering it might be my favorite from the album (though I wonder if hearing it so much conditioned that in me).

"Don't Know Why" was written and first recorded by New York-based singer/songwriter Jesse Harris with his band, the Ferdinandos. The original arrangement focused on Harris' acoustic guitar and a couple violins. Harris was brought in to play guitar on Come Away with Me, and he contributed "Don't Know Why" and four other compositions to the album. Whereas Harris opted for strings, Norah Jones turned to a jazz ensemble backing — consisting of an upright (double) bass, piano, and brush-stroked drums — to go along with Harris' light guitar lines. It's hard to get much more of a jazz-like sound than with that rhythm section, while also keeping the song on the lighter side. Jones also added a couple layers of backing "ooh"s to fill out the chorus, a role which was also previously carried out by Harris' strings on the original version. The instrumentation fits the arrangement very well, as it goes along with the song's harmonic motion. The chord progressions in both the verse and chorus largely focus on movement through the circle of fifths, a very common sound in more traditional jazz.

After yesterday's post, I can't help to hear "Don't Know Why" in relation to "Find U Again." Both songs entail a female singer/narrator pining for a lost love, and both seem to put the onus for the heartbreak on the singer. That idea isn't as explicit on Jones' track — she's not asking for forgiveness for "messing up to the third degree," to say the least — but "Don't Know Why" does revolve around a lack of commitment. The title comes from the line "I don't know why I didn't come," referring to the narrator's standing up of their partner. The similarities between the 2002 and 2019 songs end there, though. Whereas "Find U Again" is heavily based on Camila Cabello trying to get over the subject breakup, "Don't Know Why" lacks that desperation. Instead, Norah Jones seems to just float along in the aftermath of it all, thinking about moments that have passed but not acting upon any of the same desires. There's no doubt she's having difficulty dealing with the loss — "My heart is drenched in wine," she sings — but she isn't fighting to win her love back. This difference from the Ronson/Cabello tune can also be heard in the lighter, sparser arrangement; the weight of "Find U Again" made its lyrics seem even more impactful, but in "Don't Know Why" the prevailing feeling is calm, despite the heartbreak at hand.

In examining "Don't Know Why" in the manner I did, I can't help but think of the impact of it being written and originally sung by a man. Does that fact and original perspective qualify everything I wrote above? Alternatively, can Jesse Harris' cover be disregarded when discussing Jones' version? Looking at the lyrics again, I'm left unsure myself. The lack of change between the two versions' lyrics makes me wonder if the change in perspective matters in any way, but I expect there's some sort of subconscious shift that occurs in my mind that relates to a sort of gender theory. For the purpose of this article, I decided that heartbreak is heartbreak, and I disregarded the original recording — which most likely hadn't heard before anyway (not to discredit Harris). I think that led to a more rewarding perspective and argument here, but I'm sure that I'd have looked at a more gender-based argument had I not linked "Don't Know Why" with "Find U Again." Maybe I'll circle back to this track in the future and look at it a different way — that could be a fun thing to do in the future when my Senior Year Soundtrack is complete.


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