In the world of modern celebrity there’s nothing worse than the actor-turned-musician. From Russell Crowe’s 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts to Jared Leto’s 30 Seconds To Mars, it’s a mix of two things: an undeserved sense of privilege (“I’ve just nuked 10,000 civilians in Kuwait in the latest Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, now I’m gonna rock the crocs off Luton!”) and The Cringe Factor. Actors just can’t translate their cinematic cool to record. It’s something that makes ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ initially surprising, then shocking and then… well, just completely brilliant.
Before announcing two years ago that she would record an album, Scarlett Johansson had dipped her toe into music with variable results. She sang ‘Brass In Pocket’ in Lost In Translation (lovely but slight) and did backing vocals on ‘Just Like Honey’ onstage with The Jesus And Mary Chain at last year’s Coachella (her star value outshone the quality of her voice).
None of this, however, prepared us for ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’. After deciding to record an album of Tom Waits tracks (“I always loved Tom Waits and I thought my voice could lend a fresh take,” she said) she demoed them on her own, but by her own admission they were “horrible”. Instead she roped in producer – and NME Future 50 chart-topper – Dave Sitek from TV On The Radio, who in turn brought along Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. David Bowie, who appears on backing vocals, is a mutual friend – he starred in The Prestige with Johansson and also cropped up on TV On The Radio’s ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’.
Sitek’s intention, apparently, was to preserve Johansson’s alluring sexuality and dreamy intelligence – all the things that Bill Murray’s character Bob Harris fell for in Lost In Translation. He succeeded; just like Lou Reed with Nico and Serge Gainsbourg with Brigitte Bardot, Sitek has effortlessly translated Johansson’s magnetism on to record.Armed with 10 Tom Waits tunes (plus ‘Song For Jo’, a Johansson/Sitek original), the songs play like mini movies, with Johansson inhabiting each track like a film role and Sitek directing the rest.
Her deep voice (which recalls latter-day Ronnie Spector’s street-savvy tone) is only one element of a grander sonic whole. Sitek uses it as the seed around which to grow a richly textured soundscape. As with TV On The Radio, he’s deeply layered every track with his own menacing magic, and the entire thing glows with a very particular urban sheen. If Foals’ complaint was that Sitek’s original mix of ‘Antidotes’ sounded like it was “recorded in the Grand Canyon”, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ actually sounds like it was recorded in the bloodless depths of Grand Central Terminal in New York, and is all the better for it.
Starting with a bedrock of ambient feedback, he fills each song with a vast expanse of sound. Track after track is coloured with the hum of dark subways, while the dreamy buzz of power lines overhead fills your ears. “There’s a hummingbird trapped in a closed-down shoe store” she sings on ‘Town With No Cheer’, which makes for an apt description of the world that Sitek has created.The slow build, Christmas bells and blunted saxophones on ‘Fanning Street’ and ‘Falling Down’ give them a beautiful Spector-ish quality. Bowie pops up on both, singing heart-tingling counter-melodies with Johansson (recalling his work on TVOTR’s ‘Province’). The results are elegiac modern classics in-the-making. The original intention was to make a record that sounded “like Tinkerbell on cough syrup”, apparently; that actually happens on ‘I Wish I Was In New Orleans’, where a music box sounds as if it’s been recorded on an old tape player, and Johansson intones in her most faux-naïve voice.
This is a brilliant album that will no doubt top some ‘best of 2008’ lists, but it’s hard to work out if it’s a one-off or not. Perhaps the answer lies in the one original track, ‘Song For Jo’, which stands out as a result of its sparseness. A lone acoustic guitar strums, as an ambient orchestra plays in the background. It recalls Karen O’s Squeak E Clean collaboration ‘Hello Tomorrow’ and suggests that if Johansson and Sitek collaborated on a second album, similar ghostly magic could happen again. Let’s hope they do.