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Rock Solid

Scarlett Johansson’s Moment of Indie-Folk Reflection

Anywhere I Lay My Head arrived on the eve of superstardom

Photo by SAMANTA SANTY on Unsplash.

“You used to be much more…muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.” — from the film Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The album Anywhere I Lay My Head is the result of a fuzzy concept that definitely should work: vocals by Scarlett Johansson, Tom Waits covers, Alice in Wonderland themes, nature sounds and David Bowie. Just because it should work, however, doesn’t mean it will. The only way to know for sure is to press play and sit back, perhaps with some mildly hallucinogenic tea, as the music whisks you down the rabbit hole.

The CD booklet tells how the whole thing unfolded. Producer David Sitek approaches Johansson about an album he envisions as “Tinkerbell on cough syrup,” something reminiscent of British label 4AD bands like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. The band gathers at a small studio near a river in Maurice, Louisiana (pop.: <1,000) and sets up microphones to pipe in the sounds of local fauna, some of which make the final mix. Johansson has ideas for reworking tunes by Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, and the band sets about making art. The setting is crucial, because Anywhere I Lay My Head, released in 2008, sounds like it was recorded in the cradle of creation, everything real.

The dominant mood quickly descends. Album opener “Fawn” is off the 2002 Tom Waits album Alice. According to his website, the music was originally for an avant-garde opera about Lewis Carroll’s fascination with Alice Liddell, often considered the inspiration for Alice of Wonderland. Johansson’s version is an odd, meditative and eventually loud instrumental with the usual rock instruments plus organ, wind chimes, tambourine, jingle bells, triangle and saxophone. After Johansson joins, that vibe continues through “Song for Jo,” the album’s only original track, and “Green Grass,” the most obvious conjuration of the songwriter’s penchant for the rickety and carnivalesque. Then there’s a lullaby and an upbeat electronic groove before the album resumes its original dream state.

But can Johansson sing? If you’ve ever felt a frisson at Kathleen Turner’s voice in a film like Body Heat or Romancing the Stone, lost yourself in Hope Sandoval singing “Fade into You” (1994), or admired Norah Jones at her most critically lowkey, then you’ll like Johansson’s approach here. Expect no clumsy efforts at technical proficiency or overwrought displays of emotion. Instead, Johansson intones softly and effortlessly, her distinctive voice at times more sibilant than sung. She keeps a tune but isn’t self-conscious about it, like a girl singing to herself in a forest clearing and you just happen to overhear.

Bowie appears on two tracks. The first is “Falling Down,” the album’s only single. Originally a reflection on the downward spiral of a man’s life, Johansson’s video transforms it into a reflection on life as a commodity when you were once just someone’s little girl. The second is “Fannin Street,” another tale of ruin. Fannin Street is where you drink and gamble, regret but never repent, and end up “lost and never found.” Bowie is in the background and never displaces the album’s star, but so distinctive is his voice that you can’t miss it, can’t help but feel it, when he joins. The two voices go together well.

Anywhere I Lay My Head reminds me of simpler times, before Johansson began playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and became an A-lister and a sex symbol to a generation. Having always preferred her earlier films like Lost in Translation and The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I’d like to believe she still carries that young woman inside her, wondering, searching and living with uncommon muchness.

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J.P. Williams

J.P. Williams

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas.