As duet albums go, Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson‘s collaborative effort, Break Up, isn’t unique. Yorn conceived of the album as a 21st century update of Serge Gainsbourg’s recordings with actress Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s.
Yorn and Johansson recorded the album in 2006, well before Johansson bowed with her own debut (the Tom Waits covers album Anywhere I Lay My Head) in 2008. Yorn credits a break-up he was going through at the time, as well as a dream he had about recording with the actress, with inspiring him to pitch the idea to her.
Break Up distinguishes itself from similar duet albums by tackling a single theme: an unraveling love affair. Things begin with deceptively chirpy lead single “Relator”, which cribs liberally from The Beatles’ “All My Loving”. “Relator” rides along on a shuffling rhythm and sweet vocal harmonies, while dispensing kiss-off ready lyrics like “You can leave whenever you want out.” In a sense, the rest of the album can’t quite live up to this pop confection, but not for lack of trying.
A charming ukulele propels “Wear and Tear”, on which Yorn takes lead vocals, before Johansson bizarrely and robotically coos on the bridge. On “I Don’t Know What to Do”, the singers trade vocals and the song’s folk-like feel recalls ’70s AM radio. Similarly, harmony runs the show on the lilting “Shampoo”. Johansson’s plaintive singing accents the chorus.
Standout track “Blackie’s Dead” is punctuated by a stop-start chorus between Yorn and Johansson’s alternating vocals. While Johansson’s voice isn’t conventionally pretty, her phrasing seems tailor-made for these songs.
The poignant “Clean” finds the two singers marrying their voices to croon, “Would you talk to me/I want everything to be so clean.” “Search Your Heart”, with its subdued melody, benefits from Johansson’s nuanced phrasing.
On the down side, the cover of Chris Bell’s (of Big Star) “I Am the Cosmos” meanders pointlessly.
Missteps are rare, however. Break Up proves to be a breezy collection of songs produced by an unexpectedly potent partnership. The album’s mellow, reflective vibe conjures one last bittersweet afternoon stroll before lovers part for good.