Y’all can blame this one on Alex. He requested this column after reading my take on Selena Gomez’s first solo album, possibly thinking that me throwing critical thoughts at music made by actresses is comedy gold (or possibly not, I’m not a fucking mind reader). Oh, how I wish that I could tear into Anywhere I Lay My Head with the same sort of ferocity that I’ve done to work by Gomez, The Mars Volta, and Kanye’s lesser albums, but unfortunately, this album is functional.
Alright, I’ll give that this album should be a laugh riot. Scarlett Johansson, an actress who does her best work when she stays in her comfort zone, seems like the sort of person who would be better off recommending music than making it, and that her first album is basically a Tom Waits covers album invites unfavorable comparisons and easy critic punchlines. It was in writing this column, though, that I realized that I’ve never actually heard a Tom Waits song in my life—the closest I’ve come to experiencing the man’s work is his beat-boxing on Atmosphere’s “The Waitress”, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count. As such, I guess I’m the barometer for how these songs work when divorced of the onus of Waits’s body of work, and to be honest, I think I might have believed these songs were original works if I went into it blind. Under the thumb of producer David Andrew Sitek (best known for his work as part of TV On the Radio), Anywhere I Lay My Head hits the midpoint between folk and the dreamiest chamber pop, right down to the flourishes and immaculate bathroom tiles. As for the star of the show, well, once you get past the initial shock of her surprisingly throaty voice (my reaction: “Oh, goodness, that’s what she sounds like?”), you’ll find that she performs in service of the song more than herself, which at least hints that she is not a lost cause.
Where this album falls apart is with its context. This part might be a bit messy, but try to stick with me here. Kanye West songs work not just because they are good but because they are informed by a very specific perspective, one that can only be executed by West or someone similar to West. When Trent Reznor sings about his problems with drugs, it hits hard because it sounds like it is coming from a real place. I’ll argue all day that In Utero stands on its own, but put anyone besides Kurt Cobain in to sing those words and the album likely would have fallen flat. It isn’t just that an artist is proficient or poetic in making music, in other words. To the credit of those involved with this album, there’s no point where I consciously realize that a woman is singing words that were originally sung by a man (not a hefty feat, of course). This is a series of well-constructed tunes anchored by a popular public figure, but it falls prey to the same fault as countless indie-rock albums: it lacks an organ system, to say nothing of heart, and there’s no context given to accept these tunes through. If you want to hear dudes play music, you’ll get that, but that’s about it. This might have been an acceptable flaw if the backing music was gorgeous or if there was a lead vocalist here with a tremendous sense of presence, but as is, this is an album with music on it that doesn’t fuck up. That is admirable in a sense, and this could have been a disaster of huge proportions, but if I had to choose between a functional album and a hilariously shitty one, I would have preferred the latter. I’d at least be able to remember what it sounded like five minutes after it ended.
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