I knew this was coming and braced myself for the worst. Six weeks after its release, I finally gathered my gumption and listened to Scarlett Johansson’s opus of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head.

When the news originally hit, many jerked their heads up, wondering what the fuck. The idea seemed, at best, overreaching and, at worst, utterly ludicrous. But of course, it was Scarlett—the hammer and tongs otherwise reserved for such an impostor were still holstered until we actually heard her efforts. Yes. We kept an open mind, albeit a wary one.

Which was a nice sentiment really: Why write off a set of songs just because the singer seeks to accomplish the unreasonable? 

Answer: For starters, she has nothing in common with Tom Waits, except some overlapping vocal range. And her voice is bad. But it is not bad because she has a few problems with pitch, and because the melody doesn’t always come through—after all, these qualities appear consistently throughout Waits’ work. Her voice is bad because it has no dynamics, and because her delivery is devoid of character.

Whenever Waits sings, he belts it. Or howls it. Or snarls it. Or blubbers it, but he certainly doesn’t lurk behind his soundscapes with a dump truck on standby to unload all the reverb that’s been piled on his voice. He’s out there, in front, warts and all, for the world either to swallow or to regurgitate with a countenance awash with horror. Naturally, he is the deformed mutant star of his own show. 

Scarlett Johansson, however, is not the star of this album. Her voice is too meek, too wooden, too boring to be the main event here. And that made me wonder about her acting career too, because after all the hoopla about her, I still can’t figure out what’s so impressive about her. But I’ll save that for another time….

As for the accompanying music, Waits’ originals strengthen their arguments even after dance-techno beats and ambient synthpads invade. Mr. Waits’ recent embracing of beatboxing notwithstanding, new-fangled digital technology has little place in his songs. When producer Dave Sitek wants the popping and hissing of an old LP, he generates it with a digital sampler, whereas Waits records a skillet of sizzling bacon. Everything Waits records sounds like it came before  WW2, but this sounds too much like everything else in indie-IDM-whatever-it-is that reviewers are creaming themselves over these days. 

If Sitek had run Johansson through a nightly regimen of whiskey binges, filterless cigarettes and scrap iron, and then sat her down at an off-key piano and had her belt out some of Waits’ classic bar ballads, this album could have been decent. For it would have been truer to what Waits actually put himself through.

Sitek fails to grasp the inherent insanity of Waits’ subject matter and arrangements. Waits’ most recent offering, 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, showed the darkness he is capable of delivering. From the chaos and brutality of “Fish in the Jailhouse” (about a prison break riot), to the snarling Cormac McCarthy-esque “Lucinda,” to the dark and menacing necessity of “Heigh Ho,” Tom Waits’ Orphans left his fans with clear picture of the horror that consumes him. 

Scarlett Johansson is unable to reproduce even a flutter of that horror. Of course she can’t. Not when she’s 23, engaged, and being voted sexiest woman since Helen of Troy. She is quite limited to the soft side of Waits, which he hasn’t shown much of in the last ten years. She fails to capture that gravel that the man ground himself into, and how could she have? It’s arguable no one could. 

That said, at least this album doesn’t put on any airs—that is, apart from the rotten hubris of its very conception. But Dave Sitek doesn’t so much pour toxic waste on these songs as he dumps high fructose corn syrup and Crisco. Which is all wrong indeed. 

What gets me is that this album actually received some good reviews. Perhaps some critics imagined Scarlett in a cathedral somewhere singing on bended knee. The reverb suggests as much. Regardless, this album is still a disappointment, especially because many secretly hoped this album would add to their mythic rendering of her. Instead, it proves that Tom Waits was two steps ahead of us two years ago and is still an ineffable figure in popular music, untouchable by the sexiest woman alive.

*Other than his wife, obviously.

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