The seeds to Scarlett Johansson’s debut album were laid down in road trip during her youth, when a father of a friend of hers played nothing but Tom Waits songs during the whole car ride. It was a trip that would mold this talented young woman and inspire her to pay tribute to one of the most unique and unmistakable growling voices in American music history.
Tom Waits is an anomaly. He is probably the most infamous American singer with a voice you either connect with or simply do not understand. I think of Waits as the Dylan for melancholy marauders who live for the shot at the spirit with one solitary drink. He’s the poet of the barfly, a lyrical equivalent to his literary counterpart Charles Bukowski.
So why would someone like Scarlett Johansson, who lives a very non-Tom Waits-ish existence want to cover his songs? His songs are short stories for the downtrodden, the lost, the lonely and the lustful. Some just don’t get Waits but Johansson, who has made a name for herself getting inside worldly characters in such films as Lost in Translation, Ghost World and The Prestige, is someone who relishes at the challenge to honor this American icon who changed her life.
She’s got some courage to take on Waits for her debut album. I give her credit for not taking the traditional, easy route some actors in the past have made when releasing their debut albums (too many not worthy of mentioning). Here, it seems like Scarlett wanted to aim for the stars by selecting a man whose lyrical persona is famous for hanging in the metaphorical gutters.
I hear Anywhere I Lay my Head as a quintessential character for Johansson to cover. Tom Waits is somewhat like the equivalent of taking on a Shakespearean role on the stage offscreen. Played wrong, the man’s words can make you sound lost, foolish and out of tune. But Scarlett’s brave and is taking on Waits with her personal allure and her voice. The same voice that made waves a few years back when she covered Gershwin’s “Summertime” on Unexpected Dreams – Songs from the Stars. Her cover was simply stunning.
Upon first hearing about this project, I was anxious and optimistic. Then I heard the opening single “Falling Down,” and unlike some critics from across the pond, my first reaction was anything but elation. What is this? What happened to her voice? I was shocked and initially disappointed.
You see, this was my first mistake. As I was talking to my buddy Derrick, a diehard Waits-ian fan, he suggested coming into Anywhere I Lay My Head with an open mind. You need to try to put Waits and his growl out of your head. And he was right. This is not a Tom Waits album. He’s not there. It’s Scarlett Johansson.
So then I went back to Anywhere I Lay My Head, and after a few spins it truly began to grow on me. The album is far from a masterpiece. There are some very vivid covers. And then there’s a few that just fail with their overproduced glory. Overproduction is what’s wrong with this album. And the fault or praise, depending on your tastes, goes to TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. The best songs are stripped and showcase Johansson’s sultry voice and not buried deep inside a wall of sound production that would make Phil Spector proud.
Speaking of Spector, the opening number “Fawn” is a saxophone splendor of an instrumental, introducing us to Johansson’s otherworldly interpretations. “Fawn” then merges effortlessly into “Town With No Cheer.” I love the organ that plays along with Scarlett’s vocal. “Cheer” is a good one and a great choice by Sitek to put at the beginning of the album. I like the contradiction of Scarlett’s colorful vocal wandering around these dark images of this black and white town. She seems more like a true third person narrator than an out-of-place siren.
The first single “Falling Down” follows. What really bothered me about this song was the Kermit the Frog-esque banjo in the middle of the song. It sounds so out of place. But what works so well is Scarlett’s loud and proud vocal, especially when she sings, “When you give a man luck, he must fall in the sea.” What I’ve discovered what I adore about “Falling Down” is that it sounds like a cautionary tale from your best female on the true dynamics of modern relationships in a way that men will understand. And then there’s the Thin White Duke who sounds Waits-ian in his backing vocals singing in unison with Scarlett. “Falling Down” has risen for me, which was once a misstep has become a surprise and now constant in my daily rotation.
The title track is next, and from the opening lyrics of “My head is spinning round/ my heart is in my shoes, yeah,” Scarlett makes this classic, from Rain Dogs, her own personal lyrical lament. It’s the sound of someone who’s content with being alone because the place where she lays her head is home. It’s a powerful image brought out beautifully by Johansson.
“Don’t go down to Fannin Street” Scarlett warns but I do recommend revisiting this glorious cover again and again. You can really hear Johansson and Bowie duet in the chorus so clearly in this version, which is something I hoped that Sitek would have continued during the rest of Anywhere I Lay My Head.
“Song for Jo” is Johansson’s only original song on the album and it’s an acoustic beauty. This is one of the definitive highlights of the album. Sitek should’ve realized that less is more. He has the very elegant voice of Johansson to work with. Turn it up and let her voice sing towards the heavens. Why would you ruin in it with an orchestra of layered chaos? “Song of Jo” and “Green Grass” prove that you don’t need it. “Green Grass” sounds like a wondrous Dr. Seuss-ian adventure with Scarlett as your guide.
My favorite song is the stripped, music box elegance of “I Wish I Was in New Orleans.” Sitek perfectly uses this effect to turn “New Orleans” into a post-modern lullaby. A true ode to the city that I love, it makes me want to go back to the Crescent City.
I wish the rest of the songs were as stellar but the latter half is where Anywhere I Lay My Head is buried in that overproduction I had complained about earlier. Sitek turns “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” into a sonic mess. He foolishly drowns Johansson’s voice in a ghastly 1980’s new wave back beat that sounds out of place. “No One Knows Where I Goes” suffers from Sitek’s annoying music choices, as it distracts from Scarlett’s soft-spoken vocal.
The album closer “Who Are You” is no better. It sounds like Sitek is doing his worst Waits impression overshadowing Johansson’s vocal in their ill-fated duet. He should have brought back Bowie instead. I didn’t pay to hear him and his agonizing production, what I wanted was Scarlett Johansson and not the egocentric studio trickery of TV on the Radio.
So while Anywhere I Lay My Head starts off promising, it unfortunately has a very disheartening conclusion. Dave Sitek almost spoils her debut effort but don’t let that stop you from discovering this wondrous tribute to Tom Waits. It’s far from perfect but still makes an amazing journey through the underworld of Waits’ songs, starring Scarlett Johansson in the lyrical role of her lifetime. Not every song is raveworthy, but the package is definitely worthy of the price of admission. It’s that voice that pulls you in, and even though Sitek at times tries to conceal her, Scarlett’s jewel is rough as whole but sweet in all the precise sonic spaces.
Tom Waits – Used Songs
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Sia – Colour the Small One