Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits covers goes on sale tomorrow, but a critical consensus, stretching from comments on Gawker to the pages of the New York Times, has already emerged. And it says: She sucks. Everyone seems to agree that Johansson's not too hot of a singer. But many find something to like in the music itself, which was produced by Dave Sitek (the white guy from TV on the Radio). In fact, Jon Pareles calls Sitek a "hero." We're not here to take reviewers to task, because that would be extremely dull. But this is a revealing word choice. We quite like Sitek's bottom-up reinterpretations of Waits's songs. They're great even when you're not stoned. But even if it mattered that Johansson is not, technically speaking, a dazzling singer — has that ever mattered for Madonna? Or any emo band in history? — we'd still find the idea of Sitek rescuing Johansson from her own worst impulses lame. He might look like Peter Parker, but the guy's no hero.
And she's no damsel in distress. Normally we're allergic to anything with "class." But we kind of appreciate that Johansson does not display her junk in public — it's cute, in a quaint sort of way. And while she's not one of our favorite actresses, she has created a remarkable career for herself. It's not just that she has good taste or a great agent. It's her sensibility, which splits the difference between pop and art without sacrificing either one, that sets her apart from, say, Lindsay Lohan. She knows the power of Woody Allen's worshipful camera for an actress. And it's not just whom she works with — Allen, Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray — but the parts she picks. Her definitive role, in Lost in Translation, made a strength of her weakness, which is her opaqueness, that air of inaccessibility. David Edelstein glimpsed something similar in her most recent movie, The Other Boleyn Girl: "Scarlett Johansson is the revelation … With no evident strain, with almost everything internalized, Johansson keeps her head and makes you understand why Mary [Boylen] kept hers."
It is those instincts and independence of spirit that she called upon in making Anywhere I Lay My Head, and it is her reserved, easy way that redefines the music. It is very much her project. First, she chose to cover Tom Waits, picking great but not obvious songs. Then she brought on the avant-garde Sitek — who we always assumed was some arrogant hipster but turned out to be a sensitive, creative musical partner (who is probably arrogant) — and let him follow his vision. Which, it just so happens, is inseparable from her voice. Deep, tentative, and not always on point, it falls back not at all on the legendary Tom Waits croak. But like his voice, it is memorably idiosyncratic. For a gorgeous Hollywood actress who trades more on her respectable image than her lukewarm notices, taking on the songbook of a gnarled cult figure is a ballsy move. The problem is, a gorgeous Hollywood actress is not supposed to have balls. And she's not supposed to be capable of making a great album like this one. —Nick Catucci