ANYWHERE I LAY MY HEAD
Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits covers serves mainly as material evidence of the topsy-turvy weirdness of fame. If she weren't a starlet whose enigmatic allure has served directors such as Woody Allen and Sofia Coppola, no one would have given this the green light. But she is, so what should have remained a private whim becomes a public embarrassment - a Scarlett Letter.
The full line in the Waits song that gives the record its name goes: "Anywhere I lay my head I'm going to call my home." In the extensive liner notes (themselves a symptom of how much this record cries out for explanation), Johansson says it became an "anthem" for the project itself.
In other words, she reads it as: "Any damn thing crosses my mind, I get to do because I'm special."
Like many actors with passable voices, Johansson first thought to do a standards album. But she was smart enough to realize it would have been thuddingly redundant. She's smart enough to have realized that, and clever enough too to enlist gifted collaborators: Johansson ended up in a studio in Louisiana with producer Dave Sitek (of uber-fashionable Brooklyn band TV on the Radio), some of his band-mates, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and, for an extra ice-cream scoop of arbitrariness, guest vocalist David Bowie, doing 10 tunes by the éminence grise of twisted Americana, plus one of her own. But Johansson outsmarted herself: If she had done a standards album, at least people would forget it faster.
In a sense the record reprises her best film, Lost in Translation: Sitek constructed a cinematically shadowy and exotic landscape set out of guitar feedback, pump organs, digital samples, music boxes and jingle bells, then set Johansson's voice adrift within it, sounding as out of joint and out of place as her anomic character was in that movie's Tokyo. (Which explains what Bowie's doing here - he's playing Bill Murray.) The sonics and arrangements are often terrific, abducting Waits's oneiric melancholy and Dada doggerel into the space ways of My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead or Kate Bush's The Dreaming. It'd be fun to hear how they'd sound with a singer. Johansson, on the other hand, drones her way from tune to tune, nominally following the melodies but draining the music out of them, seldom conveying any sense that she even understands the words she's saying, much less offering any interpretative flair. You'd think an actress could at least manage that.
But what works for Johansson on screen is to pace her line readings a beat behind and restrain her facial expressions, enticing the camera to follow the light as it sinks into her wide eyes and spills across her creamy skin, so the viewer can project emotional subtext into her performance - passive aggression raised to an art. Such a laconic approach can't help a singer in a recording, especially one who has to compete with a busy, expressive band. Ultimately she comes across as a touch slow, as if she'd been hit in the head with a blunt object before she got to the studio.
Or, at least, as if she should have been.