Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Scarlett Doesn't Want to Grow Up

Scarlett Johansson
Anywhere I Lay My Head

Just when Scarlett Johansson - she of bright red lips and big... hair - was officially starting to lose her lustre after a breakout decade, along comes Anywhere I Lay My Head, her debut album. I was coming to this album completely fresh. I am not well-versed at all in the long and varied career of Tom Waits (even though his music adorns the soundtracks of one of my favourite movies, One From the Head) and had not heard a single one of the tracks Johansson and Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio) have decided to cover. I can't tell you how different they are, or how they compare in any way shape or form. What I can tell you, however, is that I was entranced. I was put under a spell and didn't recover until 45 minutes later.

I am blatantly aware that the album has problems. Particularly during the middle section where Johansson's vocals - and the songs themselves - seem to get lost and dawdle around with not much to do. The album's only original, "Song For Jo", is written by Johansson and Sitek and is a bit lumbering, while "Green Grass" is too twee for it's own good and "I Wish I Was In New Orleans" could have done without the music box aesthetic it puts on for far too long (an aesthetic that it borrows from elsewhere on the disc).

But, you see, here's the thing... they may not work by themselves, but in the grand scheme of Anywhere they work. They completely fit into the mould that Sitek has created - a mould he has been working on for some time now, it must be said - has created for Scarlett. One of a dreamy never never world where Johansson is the lullaby singing goddessTM. She belongs to the same world as 1960s/70s Warhol superstar Nico and '80s eccentric Grace Jones. That is to say, Johansson is a bit of a freak. If anybody ever wondered if somebody would come along to take Nico's crown as the queen of contralto oddness, I present to them Scarlett Johansson.

Elsewhere on the album, Johansson and Sitek - I keep mentioning him because the album is obviously his baby just as much, if not more so, than it is hers - create beautiful, lush and moody atmospherics. The sublime title track soars, first single "Falling Down" (featuring backing vocals by David Bowie no less) is heavy with layered instruments and vocals. "Fannin' Street", again with Bowie on backing vocals, is perhaps where Sitek's production and Johansson's vocal work best compliment each other.

For me, however, it's the final three tracks that make the album. "I Don't Want to Grow Up", perhaps the most thematically relevant to Johansson of the chosen Waits songs, is the album's lightest point. It's almost a dance track. "Who Are You" could crush bones with it's deep, sinister production and it's Scarlett's most Nico-esque moment on here. My favourite track is "No One Knows I'm Gone", which is like some sort of haunted poem. The moment at 1:40 and it's buildup has an unwavering feel of menace. I don't know what it is or how they did it, but something about that moment gives me the creeps (in the good way).

Sure, Johansson may not dig deep into Waits' catalogue (it's mostly work from the 1980s and '90s), and I can't guarantee she chose the most lyrically relevant material, but it is nice, for once, to listen to a covers album that isn't a purely cynical cash-in experience driven only by the desire to make husbands and kids lazily buy them for Mother's Day - I'm looking at you Damien Leith, Kate Ceberano, Human Nature, Rod Stewart etc. And that Johansson's vocal ability isn't the best is perhaps beyond the point entirely. Nico was never a refined vocalist until later in her career, if at all, and she is partially responsible for some classic songs.

It will be easy for many people to criticise Anywhere I Lay My Head, but I think it's much harder to dismiss as a simple "vanity project". It has a quality that sticks with the listener. And if I had to choose an actor-turned-singer (or vice versa) I'd rather have Scarlett's motley crew collection of flawed yet ambitious material than the latest CW or hip-hop star doing exactly what everyone else is doing. Anywhere I Lay My Head is a one-of-a-kind and whether you like it or not, it's a fascinating experiment, a beguiling mystery and - for me - a stunning piece of, dare I say, shocking and startling brilliance. A-


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you liked it. I liked it a lot, too. She gets way too much hate.

Anonymous said...

Her singing voice is awful.
That wouldn't be too big a problem if it wasn't also lifeless or if she had actually written, arranged or played the music herself. But as that's not the case she's left in the unenviable position of being by far the weakest link on her own album.