Scarlett Johansson has a bit of a daddy complex. It’s been obvious at least since she became Woody Allen’s newest nubile muse, though you can make a strong argument for her Billy Murray-baiting performance in Lost in Translation as an early warning sign. Because her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, is also a curiosity of Tom Waits covers Svengalied into existence by producer David Sitek, it fits perfectly into a psychosexual reading of her body of work as being (over?) determined by her older, hipper, maler collaborators. That it features David Bowie on background vocals is just icing on the cake.
The album itself is kind of an afterthought; what its creation says metatextually about the artists responsible for it is more interesting than any of the music it contains. Johannson comes across as a cipher, which is at least better than seeming a cred-vampire. She’s neither a particularly interesting nor a particularly skillful singer, and she spends much of the record locked into a sub-Nico hum that’s quite a bit less charismatic than her husky line readings might suggest.
Sitek essentially treats Johannson’s vocals as an element (often a minor one) of his narcotically dense productions, which says a lot about his pretensions and even more about his ability to actually create pop songs. By all rights, Johansson really oughta be the star here (she’s the pretty girl with the cigarette-stained voice, right?), but she’s buried under mildly interesting oceanic fuzz a lot of the time. Sitek’s fruitful creative tension with the non-shrinking violet vocalists of his day job, TV on the Radio, is thus a somewhat uncomfortable subtext of this collaboration. His productions, lush as they are, benefit from strong vocal counterpoints; the few found here where Johannson does her best impression of cutting loose, such as “Falling Down” and the title track, are easy standouts.
Try as one might, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of any benefit that David Bowie might derive from participating in this sideshow. Maybe they were doing some awesome Canadian cough syrup in the studio and he wanted a piece? Is this indie-rock elder statesman shtick really the most respectable possible third act for our bygone superstars? Waits fares much better, as his songs prove relatively resilient to even the most cockeyed readings: Even the crack-flavored bubblegum take on “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is totally fascinating, even if it is also quite evidently terrible. Bill Murray and Woody Allen are thankfully, blissfully unimplicated.