Is this where the red carpet ends? Not really, because Scarlett Johansson is still acting. She’s singing Tom Waits’s lyrics, tippling through Dave Sitek’s swampy production, and pretending that you’re not extremely skeptical about this record. But why shouldn’t you be? Because, against all odds, Anywhere I Lay My Head doesn’t feel like a vain stunt. Mostly. Sure, there are moments when you wonder: “Did Natalie Portman turn this down?” But a record of assorted Waits covers by a lacquered 23-year-old starlet is horrifying to both their fan bases. This is clearly not a cash grab, or a play for the mainstream: A tinkling music-box take on “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” will enthrall neither tracksuit-wearing Us Weekly readers nor dive-bar degenerates. But what makes Johansson’s decision to take on a 59-year-old groaner’s songs defensible is that her voice also sounds like she’s smoked her friends down to the filter.
Of course, the boldfaced help she’s convened here—TV on the Radio’s Sitek, plus guest spots from Nick Zinner, Stars Like Fleas, and her co-star from The Prestige, one David Bowie—ensures that she’s easily the weak link in her own record. That’s a given: Her only previous recording experience was a gaunt Mae West imitation of “Summertime” for Rhino’s Unexpected Dreams compilation. She’s a monotonous singer, with a garrulous flat alto that swoops uneasily to sub-Nico baritone. She sings like Bill Murray’s eyes would. But thankfully, Sitek recognizes her limitations and wisely pairs her with Waits’s most frankly plaintive lyrics until the emotion drips through; he directs in close-ups. “Fannin Street” is sweetened with crashing wall-of-soundwaves and restrained Lolita whimpers, while “Falling Down” sparsely adapts bells and woodwinds into chilly shoegaze. Throughout, Johansson’s handlers cushion her in muted, dense pop strata, the palpable and prettified Hollywood treatment, and the effect is sometimes transportive: “Green Grass,” the only selection here that tackles Waits’s circus-dirge tomfoolery, gracefully reconciles glamour and grit. (And the only original track, the central “Song for Jo”? It’s a slushy, sleepy ride through the bayou, no more than a curl of smoke.)
So if Bowie—and, yes, Waits—can be actors, why can’t Johansson be a musician? Far from an act of horrifying sacrilege, consider Anywhere I Lay My Head Scarlett’s heartfelt attempt to win East Village Idol: a safe, pleasant oddity from someone who genuinely likes Tom Waits, and has enough clout and audacity to create a monument to him. Everyone is allowed to love, and romanticize, that sad old bastard at the bar—even her. Stars: They’re just like us!