[14 September 2009]
It might be easy to draw comparisons between Break Up, the new album from partners in crime Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson, and last year’s She & Him project from like-minded duo M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel: indie-centric folky troubadour seeks out similarly indie-centric silver screen starlet to collaborate on a winsome, breezy pop record. A little too easy, maybe, and on the surface somewhat superficial, but an apt and useful reference point in illustrating the highs and lows in the execution here.
While She & Him drew inspiration from ‘60s pop and twirly girl groups, Yorn and ScarJo are rather ham-fisted in their insistence that they’re creating their own version of a Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot record. Significantly weightier material to draw from the well on, certainly, as Serge and Bardot’s work has been noted and generally accepted as a pillar in art rock—a bit heavier in substance and a little more esoteric in displayed knowledge than the generally ubiquitous influence the Beach Boys have on today’s underground music scene. While Z and M are unaffected in their ability to roll off effervescent pop songs with ease, Yorn and ScarJo are slightly more ambitious in their quest to fulfill what they self-describe as a song cycle, chronicling an emotional trauma that’s fairly universal, yet insular in individual experience. Even the choice of covers here is revealing: She & Him try their hands at time-worn favorites from the Fab Four and the Miracles, while Yorn and ScarJo tackle the roiling, tortured art rock lost classic “I Am the Cosmos” by Chris Bell. No one’s condemning ambition here, but if you pump your album’s background full of pretense, you damn well better follow through, and the problem here is that it’s a hit and miss affair.
Last year’s Anywhere I Lay My Head—ScarJo’s admirable but sequentially misfired attempt at a tribute album to the inimitable Tom Waits—is rather telling of Johansson’s own goals as an actress striving to seamlessly crossover as a Serious Songstress. What began as an interesting experiment eventually boiled over with her earnest bid at musicianship: she did not want to be blown off as just another Hollywood star recording a vanity project, and she would be damned if she didn’t grab your attention with her clumsy sentiments concerning credibility with the critics. Loaded with pretense, you can almost hear her fuming underneath her breath, “You don’t want to take me seriously because I’m a pretty actress? Well, take this! I’ll cover one of the most challenging, chameleonic artists of all-time!” Maybe on a larger scale, it’s the fault of pop music’s audience today, who tend to slight artists who throw their hand in on a variety of mediums, but they’re usually pretty sharp about sincerity at the very least: if they can catch a hint of the desperation you’re emitting, you’re kind of screwed from the get-go.
Which is what makes Break Up marginally easier to swallow than ScarJo’s previous dive for respect, but it ultimately remains just as overzealous and starry-eyed. While we shouldn’t slight Yorn’s input here—and we won’t, as he did write the whole album, and came up with its basic premise all by his lonesome—let’s face it: it’s Johansson’s involvement that’s adding interest to this project and keeping it from being just another Pete Yorn album. For the most part, he croons out his comfortable-by-now sweater-pop rather effortlessly, so the success and variance in formula rests on Johansson’s laurels, and it’s with pained disappointment (as someone who has been heartily awaiting the album’s release) that I report her inability to fully meet expectations. Without a truly distinctive vocal performance—mostly void of charisma or personality—she’s mainly left to complement Yorn’s mannered, croaky half-yelp/half-moan. It isn’t strong enough to demand attention, and it doesn’t carry enough mystique to set a tone; what we end up with is an overeager girl trying to sound like a strong woman. The substance gets lost in the haze when you lack a certain amount of vocal presence, leaving you to merely exist on record, floating aimlessly and unable to provide stalwart delivery in what you’re singing.
This is a shame, because when Yorn and Johansson don’t try so hard, they’re not half bad, and actually rather promising. On “Relator”, the album’s lead single (and one of the best straight up pop singles in years), ScarJo takes on the role of a voluminous sex kitten, tossing off rough-hewn bubblegum pop with equal parts flare and restraint. Later in the record, with “Shampoo”, the duo displays a genuine sense of loss, evoking regret and wistfulness with the soft-spoken, repeated refrain, “Last thing I remember / Things were getting better”. Unfortunately, elsewhere Yorn drops the ball in the songwriting department, unable to advance or progress the self-imposed “song cycle” he claims inspired the project. Without offering detailed narratives, or even affecting lyrical jabs to suggest any individuality, Yorn mainly licks his wounds (we assume there are wounds, anyhow) with blanketed, generalized blame-game tactics, referring to a faceless, painful break-up, yet refusing to amend it with any identity that would otherwise elicit the required empathy to make it work.
This isn’t so fatal when you disregard the representation Yorn and Johansson attach here, and with the exception of a few misguided tracks, on strictly a song-by-song basis (the stiff “Search Your Heart”; the glossy, ill-conceived cover of “I Am the Cosmos” that just doesn’t get it) the tunes are generally enjoyable. The production doesn’t really allow much room to breathe, and winds up sounding patchy and tapped out in some empty corners, but it hardly matters, because the melodic structure of the individual songs is tuneful and memorable. “Wear and Tear” and “Clean” smoothly and neatly encapsulate the longing required to hook in listeners, and closer “Someday” nearly redeems the entire project with Yorn’s crackling voice, heartbreaking enough to nearly wipe away the memory of how mismanaged too much of this album is.
Eliminate the stilted pursuit of Artistry oozing out of the cracks here, and ignore the notion that there’s some sort of emphasis on an unraveling journey-through-song, and Break Up is actually a pleasant enough detour as a light-hearted, retro-pop affair. However, given how evident it is that Yorn and Johansson aspired to make this an Important and Personal Work, it’s hard to judge it solely on the merits that actually lend it an air of success. Maybe next time, Scarlett won’t be so hung-up on impressing her critics, but until then, we’re left with merely a promising artist who hasn’t yet taken full advantage of her potential.