Scarlett Johansson frequents the movie screen as a leading lady against strong male actors, so it seems natural that she would appear on an duet album called Break Up playing against Pete Yorn. Yorn is no stranger to sharing the stage, either; he has collaborated with musical bigwigs such as Dave Grohl and the Dixie Chicks. On the album, Yorn’s second release this year, a breakup between the two is the theme of the lyrics, and the music ranges from giddy to contemplative to morose, each song capturing a different general mood. It may have been more compelling if the songs followed a narrative thread, but each track does stand on its own, and Johansson is well cast as the female lead. However, vague lyrics and and lack of a real sense of chemistry within the duet makes the album a bit too bland.
The idea in creating the pairing is modeled after the duets between Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, and the effect of being sung to by a beautiful actress is not lost here. Although the charm Johansson exudes in film did not particularly save her 2008 album of Tom Waits songs, Anywhere I Lay My Head (produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek), from mediocrity, it does come through better on Break Up. Clearly, Johansson is stronger as Yorn’s foil than posing as an art-house troubadour.
At only nine tracks, the album, which was recorded in 2006, falls just one minute shy of a half hour. It seems a good length when listened to in full. Too much longer may have been self indulgent — too much dwelling on the past, too much mooning over a relationship that never was. Strong songs pop up throughout the album, though none match the pep and pop of “Relator,” the first track and lead single. It’s catchy, short, and held together by some of Yorn’s nifty guitar sounds and Johansson’s verses. “Search Your Heart” is also upbeat, tripping along to plucked arpeggios and the two really do seem to be singing to each other in classic duet style, rather than just reciting corresponding lines. The song seems just a bit too fast as the two argue: Yorn sings, “You won’t find another dummy who’ll wait for you/ So I hate the one who lives for you,” and Johansson responds, “Don’t blame me for your troubles.” It captures the frenetic feeling of a breakup when people say things that may be hard to take back.
The album also gets slow and sentimental, as breakups do. “I Am the Cosmos” is a lovely, echoing rendering of the Chris Bell song, on which the characters seem caught in revery, bolstering their conviction to go on alone. It would fit right in on any mopey mixtape. Probably the saddest feeling track on the album is “Clean.” The refrain lines, “Would you talk to me?/ I want everything to be so clear/ So clean,” are sung in the most honest emoting on the album, capturing the feeling of wanting to clarify everything before the two never speak again. It is such an emotional song that it makes me wonder why the rest of the album is less so.
But just like a relationship, chemistry is ultimately what’s most important. Although Yorn and Johansson take the listener through some ups and downs, the chemistry between them is not readily apparent, so it feels in a sense that the breakup is not keenly felt by either party. It is entirely listenable, but this sort of album suggests the power to either break or fortify hearts. To that extent, it does not follow through.