Since her 2 break out roles in 2001 in Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t There, Scarlett Johansson has become a fixture on movie screens. With her classical good looks and sultry, smoky voice, she’s carved out a reputation as a sex symbol willing to take on an array of varying roles in various types of movies. As an actress, Johansson only runs into problems when she’s miscast. During her brief stint as Woody Allen’s muse, she was woefully miscast as an enterprising journalism student in Scoop. But from The Avengers to this year’s phenomenal Under the Skin, when she’s working within her strengths, she’s a captivating presence onscreen. Like so many other movie stars before her, Scarlett Johansson wasn’t content with success on the silver screen. In 2008, she released Anywhere I Lay My Head, her first album comprising mainly of the songs of Tom Waits with one original composition.
Now, Tom Waits is one of my favorite musicians. Whether it’s his boozy blues phase or his growling madman phase, Waits has always been a unique force in the world of music, as well as a divisive one. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground when talking about the music of Tom Waits – it’s either love or hate. One thing you can’t deny – he’s one of a kind. The idea of Johansson lending that sultry, smoky voice of hers to the music of Tom Waits doesn’t sound entirely bad. That is, until you actually hear it. Sadly, Johansson and her collaborators turn Waits’ songs of drunken tragedies into the realm of sedate indie synth-pop. There are Tom Waits songs that could be transposed in this manner, except they choose ones where the sedate indie synth-pop is horribly out of place.
The album opens with a hint of promise. With her take on the instrumental Fawn, from the Waits album Alice, it starts out with a fantastic electric organ, drums, and guitar. Then the song takes a turn for the worse, as saxophones, effects, and synths all culminate in a reverberating cacophony of chaos, but not the good kind of chaos. The album follows with Town with No Cheer from Swordfish Trombones and Falling Down from Big Time. Neither of her versions are as out of place as the ones that come later, but they still don’t stand out. The other inoffensively forgettable renditions are Fannin’ Street from Orphans, Green Grass from Real Gone, No One Knows I’m Gone from Alice, and Who Are You from Bone Machine.
When we get to the album’s title track from Waits’ Rain Dogs, Anywhere I Lay My Head, we run into a myriad of problems. The final track on the great Waits album is a hobo anthem that closes out the record on a bittersweet number. Johansson, though, turns it into this kind of upbeat pop number with this annoying synthesized percussion. It’s not that want Johansson to mimic Waits’ version, it’s that the arrangements here don’t fit the feel of what the songs are about. She inadvertently turns a song about passing out in the street into some kind of defiant anthem.
Her version of I Wish I Was in New Orleans takes a song that is ideally drunkenly sung along with friends and relegates it to the bland confines of a maudlin hipster lullaby. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that her version of this song could wind up playing in the background of a Christmas-timed advertisement for the New Orleans Tourism Board.
Without a doubt, the absolute nadir of the album is her rendition of I Don’t Wanna Grow Up from the album Bone Machine. Rowdy, gritty, and defiant, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up is one of the greatest songs in Tom Waits’ extensive catalogue. It’s a song that’s been done well by other bands, most notably the Ramones on their final album Adios Amigos. But Johansson takes a song that is raw and passionate and renders it into a shitty ‘80s song. With her half-hearted Nico impersonation and the song’s wretched drum machine, it sounds like a group of junkies formed a Blondie – and, yes, that’s a bad thing.
Even through listening to this album it’s hard to get a handle on who Scarlett Johansson is as a singer. Through the effects and her monotone delivery, whether or not she can actually sing remains a mystery. What isn’t a mystery is that she was miscast here. I still wonder if she could pull off being a sultry crooner-type. With that voice you’d think she could pull it off. Anywhere I Lay My Head isn’t bad because she tried to do something different with Tom Waits’ music, it’s bad because what she did wasn’t that different than so many other bland, forgettable indie acts. At the very least we know that Scarlett Johansson has some good taste in music. Maybe someday she can figure out how to turn that good taste into good music.