Review Summary: Not quite the epic fail it could have been, but close.
If there's anyone in the world it's impossible to say no to, then it's surely Scarlett Johansson. After all, she's young, she's rich, as an actress she's clearly got a lot of talent, and she's strikingly attractive in a way that suggests she was designed rather than born. Men don't do well when confronted with women like that, as one Woody Allen will attest (seriously, he hasn't talked about a woman so much since that thing with his daughter). This, and this alone, is the reason that nobody involved - not Woody, not David Bowie, not David Sitek of TV on the Radio, not Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, not anybody at Rhino Records, not her agent, not her friends, not Tom Waits himself - took the time to tell her that recording an album of Tom Waits covers is a really, really, REALLY fu
cking bad idea.
And a bad idea it most certainly has turned out to be. To be fair, this is not as bad as it could have been - the avoidance of obvious tracks like "Hang Down Your Head", "Time", "Downtown Train", "In The Neighborhood", "The Piano Has Been Drinking", "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six", and "Ol' 55" at least makes things interesting, and is probably the album's biggest strength. No, as far as song choice goes, she's plumped for a nice splattering of songs from throughout the second part of Waits' career, right up to "Fannin Street", a song from the recent Orphans
compilation. Clearly she knows her stuff as far as his music goes, and she has passion for these songs, so no complaints there. In fact, for the duration of the opening "Fawn" (an instrumental), it seems like this might be quite a pleasant album.
And then she starts singing.
It might be a bit on the harsh side to say that Johansson cannot sing, but honestly, Nico sounds like Bonnie Tyler in comparison. Her voice has no natural power, her range is incredibly limited, and she sounds curiously emotionless throughout. It's obvious on a lot of these tracks that she's been multi-tracked to within an inch of her life, in a vain attempt to make it sound like she's competent. That leads to the album's second crucial problem - its production. Do a Google search for the title of this album and the first thing that appears is a news article mentioning 'My Bloody Valentine-esque multi-layered and reverb-heavy production' - and that's not because it's a tribute to noise pop and shoegaze, it's because Sitek is doing absolutely everything in his power to stop you noticing the deficiency of Johansson's vocals. It lands the album so squarely in dreamy pop territory that you're almost forced to recall Cocteau Twins, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and Enya - only this album isn't as good as any of those reference points. "Song For Jo", the album's one original song, is especially guilty of this, and when Johansson's vocal turn at last year's Coachella is considered, it just comes off as cynical.
So it's overproduced, it's frequently monotonous, and the vocals are barely competent. If you were wondering how these's songs stack up to the originals, there's your answer. The down-home, whiskey-soaked vibe that Waits is famous for has been lost, and with it has gone much of the meaning hard-wired into these songs - the worst offender on that count is "I Don't Wanna Grow Up", which loses all of its intended irony. With such ridiculous production values, the songs simply aren't given room to breathe where they need it, which explains why a return to the originals immediately after hearing Johansson's takes is so refreshing.
The thing that really crucifies this album, though, is that the whole exercise just seems so utterly pointless. Will Tom Waits fans buy and enjoy this? I seriously doubt it. Will fans of Scarlett Johansson's films buy and enjoy this? Probably not, and even if they do, they'll know it's a covers album and will abandon it as soon as they dig out the originals. General music lovers? They'll see it as a novelty item. People who'll buy anything with a celebrity's name on it? They'll hate it - it's too insular, too lofty, not catchy enough. So we're left with....people who like Tom Waits' songs but hate his voice? How much of a niche market are we talking here? Anywhere I Lay My Head
is a vanity project made by Scarlett Johansson, for Scarlett Johansson, and what's more, it sounds suspiciously like a desperate cry for credibility from a woman who doesn't actually need any.