Sure, you can call it a vanity project when an actress records and releases a covers album just because she wants to do it, a label will bankroll it and people will buy it — but then what else would you call karaoke? Scarlett Johansson’s Tom Waits tribute is every shower singer’s fantasy of a receptive audience, but enlarged and enabled by the celebrity-industrial complex. How oddly self-aware, though, for a vanity project to begin with an instrumental track.
For that matter, when we do hear the star’s husky, definitely unembarrassing vocal stylings, they’re low in the mix, scarcely more prominent than a Massive Attack chanteuse. She’s basically third-billed on her own album, behind Waits and producer Dave Sitek. Anywhere I Lay My Head draws primarily from Waits’s more recent work, with a lyrical stream-of-consciousness starting to wend its way toward accessibility, and melodies adaptable to arrangements other than “a drunken organ grinder staggers onto a deserted movie set.” They’re sturdy and flexible enough, in other words, to retain their structure under the layers of atmosphere Sitek applies — there’s that sense here, familiar from Sitek’s work with TV on the Radio, of organs and synths and horns and percussion all poking halfway out of the same stewy production, and beginning to blend into each other. Sitek cleans up ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’ and dresses it in a stuttering drum machine, and seems to have broken the lower end of ‘Heart of Glass’ in two and stuck parts of it in the title track and album closer ‘Who Are You’, but for the most part this is a lush, slo-mo mood piece, with a bit of the abandoned amusement park in the music-box tinkle of ‘I Wish I Was in New Orleans’. Though Johansson’s got none of Zooey Deschanel’s Sissy Spacek-as-Loretta Lynn moxie or front-porch songwriting chops, Anywhere I Lay My Head, like She & Him’s Volume One, transcends its hook — credit to either stage-managed cultural positioning or genuine self-effacement and good taste, though I’m not sure it matters which. And bonus points for Trojan-horsing Waits and Sitek into the supermarket checkout line.