Review Summary: Anywhere I Lay My Head transcends the label given to it by marketing campaigns, namely the label of “tribute album”. It stands on its own two feet as an independent album – some of the songs, “Falling Down” especially, meander from the blueprint
I don’t see the point in a cover, unless it is at least a slightly different interpretation of the original. Therefore, even if you deemed Scarlett greedy and reckless for stepping into the realm of music, you have to give her some artistic merit of envisioning this collection of Waits’ songs with such drastically different arrangements, instrumentation and style.
When I first heard that she was releasing what the press called a “tribute album”, I immediately assumed that she would record Waits’ more well-known pieces, such as “Downtown Train” or “Hang Down Your Head”. (I even nauseously envisioned “Jersey Boy”). However, these tracks have been picked through a much more careful and thought-out process. Thought out by whom? Why, Scarlett of course. She’s a huge Tom Waits fan, as her lengthy liner notes definitely confirm. And it’s her adoration of and devotion to Waits’ music that is one of the factors of what makes this whole thing work.
The opener, “Fawn”, swaps the original’s screeching violin for a pulsating organ. The climax yields the first taste of David Sitek’s rich, vibrant production.
The follow-up to “Fawn”, “Town with No Cheer”, is perhaps the best example of Sitek’s lush, animated soundscapes, alive with shivering tambourines and screaming sax contrasted with smooth guitar licks and crystalline bells, while Scarlett is appropriately humdrum as somebody who’s worked their ass off on a hot day but can’t get that well-deserved bourbon at the end of it because “Voc Rail decided the canteen was no longer necessary there”.
“Falling Down”, the album’s one and only single, marches in with a jaunty piano riff and the line “I’ve come 500 miles just to see a halo/Fall from St. Petersburg/Scarlett and me”, with the living legend that is David Bowie on backing vocals. At about halfway through, the march comes to a halt and the bells make their reprise, creating a celestial bridge between the first and second halves of the song, the second half being a lengthy, banjo-driven, country-fied outro.
The title track (and possibly the most disappointing track) is brought in with glassy vibes reminiscent of the intro to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Though admittedly more catchy and accessible than the original, it sacrifices the rawness and solemnity of the Waits version. Also, a 3-string guitar hook is a small compensation for the exclusion of the grand, dynamic orchestral instrumental that marched out the original.
Thankfully, “Fannin Street” picks up right where “Falling Down” left off, with Scarlett welcoming back Bowie for a final harmony. She sings “Now there’s ruin in my name/I wish I never got off the train/And I wish I listened to the words you said/Don’t go down/To Fannin Street” with a heartbreaking mix of pain, irony and self-hatred, while Bowie croons in the background as if he’s busted a false hip. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s a convincing rendition of a song about ruin and regret – even the instruments sound with sorrowful lament.
The album’s centrepiece, “Song for Jo”, is the one and only original track on the set, written by Johansson and Sitek. Here, Sitek’s production is so rich and meticulously detailed (complete with the sound of chimes and leaves rustling in the wind) that you feel as if you’re “asleep on the bathroom floor” next to Johansson. This and the use of looping create an appropriately nostalgic atmosphere for Scarlett to recount the days of her childhood. I have no idea of precisely what the song is about, as it is deeply personal. But it is the song’s intimacy that makes it at once beautiful and inaccessible.
In “I Wish I Was In New Orleans,” Scarlett sounds as if she’s posed perfectly still on a podium and rotating gently in a child’s music box, as she sings longingly about a life in New Orleans with “a bottle and my friends and me”. This is the only song on the album taken from Waits’ 70s catalogue and it wasn’t until I heard this rendition that I realised what a marvellous song it is.
“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is probably the most controversial song present, as critics and Waits’ fans alike all seem to agree that it is one of his utmost best. So, I am possibly the only person who thinks that Waits’ raucous delivery murders the child whose perspective he is singing from. Scarlett, however, revives this poor kid, as she sings with innocence and adorable childlikeness. Meanwhile, Sitek transforms the melody from a rusty, clattering folk/rock stomper into a sparkling disco gem.
“No One Knows I’m Gone” could be the most precious gem on the entire record. Sitek’s ominous guitar licks and a drum beat suitable for a prisoner on their way to the hangman’s noose create a dark, solitary atmosphere, before Scarlett comes in with the typically Waitsian line “Hell above and heaven below”.
Mixed in are a couple of bad tracks. On “Green Grass”, Sitek’s cauldron boils over and Scarlett drowns in the production to the extent that just hearing her through the banjos, guitars, kalimbas and cricket noises becomes a strain for the ears. Elsewhere, on “Who Are You” she is overwhelmed by her backing vocalists to the extent that she becomes the backing vocalist.
Now, conventionally speaking, Scarlett’s voice isn’t great, armed with a very limited vocal range. Here, she reaches for many a tricky note and fails miserably. However, on any album that even remotely involves Tom Waits, there is no need to speak conventionally. And besides her limited range, Scarlett’s husky vocals are sensuous, captivating and full of as much emotion as her finest performance. Besides, when her voice is enveloped in Sitek’s production, who cares if she can’t sing?
Overall, Anywhere I Lay My Head transcends the label given to it by marketing campaigns, namely the label of “tribute album”. It stands on its own two feet as an independent album – some of the songs, “Falling Down” especially, meander from the blueprint they have been lifted from and become something almost totally unrecognisable from the Waits originals. Johansson has rumoured that she would like to record an album comprised of self-written material and, judging by “Song for Jo”, it shouldn’t be too embarrassing!