Scarlett Johansson's Tom Waits Tribute Album: Pretty Good, Actually!
Reasons that Scarlett Johansson would want to record an album of Tom Waits covers abound. From the most cynical possible angle, she's an indie-film actress who needs to ramp up her cool-chick bona fides after getting engaged to Van Wilder and appearing on every lad-mag hottest-chicks-ever countdown and making a Michael Bay movie (though The Island, I'll argue, was a whole hell of a lot better than Match Point). More to the point, though, I know at least five people who, given the money, time, and fame necessary to record Tom Waits tribute albums, would do the exact same thing. And in any case, Johansson proves on Anywhere I Lay My Head that she's a better junk-blues weirdo than Waits is an indie-film actor these days; see Wristcutters: A Love Story, or don't. Even the most sympathetic critics have to concede that Anywhere I Lay My Head Johansson's Waits love-letter, is a fundamentally ridiculous enterprise, almost stunning in its total lack of need to exist. (Sean Fennessey: "This album is sort of like if the 25-man roster of the New York Mets came to my office and rapped the Pharcyde’s 'She Said' at me. Two things I love dearly coming together - and it’s not quite right.") It also seems guaranteed to vengefully piss off a certain segment of the population; when I mentioned that I really like the album at the Voice editorial staff meeting today, a howl of protest went up. The people who people who deeply love Waits's bruised, scraggly rambles, after all, are generally exactly the people who won't take kindly to a rich and famous and mindbendingly pretty actress offering her interpretations of these songs. But there's something to be said for the sheer ballsiness of the exercise, and something more for the fact that the end product sounds nothing like a Tom Waits record.
Johansson recruited Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio to produce, a canny choice. I'll listen to virtually anything that guy produces, even Dragons of Zynth. His immersively woozy sense of float here is almost the polar opposite of the precision-skronk he brought to the Foals' Antidotes; Sitek buries nearly every sound in the mix, letting everything bleed into everything else. More than anything Sitek's done yet, Anywhere I Lay My Head feels entrenched in the old cathedrals-of-gauze 4AD aesthetic, a smearily grand beauty that almost no one else seems able to pull off anymore. As a technique, Sitek's muffling enormity serves to distance the album from Waits's ramshackle clangs-and-bagpipes originals and to render Johansson's celebrity into something approaching a nonfactor. Her voice doesn't show up until track two, and when it does, it's just another element in Sitek's muffling mix. Sitek buries Johannson's voice so completely, in fact, that this album manages to render Waits's lyrics less comprehensible that Waits's muppet croak could ever manage. And Johannson's voice totally works for this stuff. I've always loved the husky depth of her speaking voice, and she puts it to good use here, intoning Waits's lyrics in a breathy near-whisper that actually becomes a full-on whisper a few times. It's nothing like Wait's ground-down crackle of a voice, of course, but it has a world-weary force of its own. She can't quite make the self-consciously anachronistic colloquialisms of those lyrics work, and she really shouldn't have tried; I wish she'd just say "Houston" instead of "Houston-town," for instance. But her interpretations take on their own welcome contexts; when she talks about drinking you under the table, there'd be a walloping sexiness in her voice that'd still be there even if we didn't know it was Scarlett Johansson singing.
Johansson and Sitek try out a few stylistic left-turns over the course of the album. "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" becomes a sunny synthpop hymn, and the drum-ripples from Blondie's "Heart of Glass," last heard on Missy Elliott's "Work It," show up on "Who Are You." On "I Wish I Was in New Orleans," Johansson's only accompaniment is a reverbed-out tinkling music-box. For the most part, though, everything on the album comes submerged in a viscous shoegaze amber that honors the faraway mystery of the Waits originals without ever attempting to replicate their sound. When David Bowie shows up to sing background on a couple of tracks, he's in caterwauling self-parody form, but Sitek responds by reducing him to a near-echo in the mix. Nothing is allowed to break the narcotic mood. And so the elegant simplicity of Waits's songs emerges in a completely different way than it does on Waits's own records.
Anywhere I Lay My Head is inevitably going to draw comparisons to She & Him's Volume One, another vanity-project album from a gorgeous indie-film actress. But even if Zooey Deschanel is both a more distinctive and a more technically gifted singer than Johansson, even if her "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from Elf completely destroys Johansson's "Brass in the Pocket" from Lost in Translation, Volume One strikes me as a much safer, less interesting record. Rather than a weirdo visionary like Sitek, Deschanel made her album alongside the amiable middlebrow indie-folk-popper M. Ward. I like Volume One just fine, but it's a low-risk, low-reward affair, and it never strives for anything beyond a breezy utilitarian pleasantness. For all its pure goofiness, Anywhere I Lay My Head is a braver and heavier work, a slow dive into honeyed ether. It's not a masterpiece, but it unfolds like a long, luxuriant, theatrical sigh, and I'll take that.