By: Matt Fink
Similar to Tom Waits’ starring role as a hard-luck DJ in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, Johansson’s decision to make an album of Waits songs is a can’t-lose proposition, a left-field creative exercise that’s insulated from criticism because it’s so free of vanity and opportunism. But where Waits’ genius lies in his ability to create songs that sound like they were found in a forgotten vault in the Library of Congress, Johansson and her collaborators bravely twist the material away from its timeless appeal, turning Waits’ greasy originals into glistening pop songs that sound like they could have been released on 4AD in the mid ’80s. They trade boozy sprawl for exacting precision, whirring organs and shoegazey guitar fuzz to make a wall of reverb on “Falling Down.” And the clicking drum machine and crystalline synths of “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” create a shimmering counterpoint to the junkyard grit of Waits’ original. The classic “Fannin’ Street” is remade as an ethereal girl-group epic, and “No One Knows I’m Gone” becomes an ominously rumbling space drone. Through it all, Johansson is just another instrument in the mix, and her willingness to allow the arrangements to transform Waits’ creaky intimacy into wide-eyed atmosphere ultimately results in the rare covers album that actually has its own identity.
By: Amanda Petrusich
Recording a full-length album of Tom Waits covers is a daunting—some might say futile, others hubristic—undertaking for even the most experienced of vocalists, let alone a 23-year-old starlet making her recording debut. On Anywhere I Lay My Head, Johansson transforms Waits’ lurching compositions into thick, druggy dirges muttered in flat baritones. Waits’ legendary caterwauls tend to be the central focus of his songs, but Johansson’s vocals are buried so deep in the mix that it’s often difficult to discern her singing from the layers and layers of studio atmospherics. And while Waits’ vocals propel his songs in remarkable ways, Johansson’s singing feels strangely sluggish and plodding, which may have been the point. Producer David Sitek (TV on the Radio) claims they were pursuing a “cough medicine, Tinkerbell kind of vibe,” but it still doesn’t serve the work. Truth is, even if Johansson possessed golden pipes, this project would still be hopelessly ill-conceived: These songs were already so impeccably performed that Johansson didn’t have very many new places to take them, and although her effort and nerve are commendable, “not as terrible as you thought it would be” just isn’t the same thing as good.